Long nurtured as a project by Abel Ferrara with various screenwriters, Mary finally emerged as a furiously compressed film, a dazzling montage of ideas about how to live spiritually in a corrupt, modern world.
Sharing neither the morbid fixation on the Son of God’s physical suffering (Mel Gibson’s queasy The Passion of the Christ, 2004), nor the prurient speculation on Mary Magdalene’s sex life and blood line (Ron Howard’s The Da Vinci Code, 2006), Mary compares three characters, each of whom represents a different way of experiencing and exploring religious belief.
An actress, Marie (Juliette Binoche), psychodramatically over-identifies with her screen role as Magdalene, dropping out of Western society and choosing to wander as a pilgrim in Jerusalem.
A TV host, Ted (Forest Whitaker), blindly blunders in bad faith in his personal sphere, all the while chairing on-air conversations with true-life, religious experts.
And a driven director (Matthew Modine as Ferrara’s alter ego, Ted) is so committed to his own radical vision of the truth of Christ that he not only makes (and stars as Jesus in!) a controversial film titled This Is My Blood, but also accompanies it all the way to a desperate course of action at the film’s picketed New York premiere. (Shades, here, of the furore surrounding the international release of Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary in 1985).
All of these characters are, in their own ways, visionaries (as Nicole Brenez has explained in her 2007 book on Ferrara): they set their fraught destinies according to the screen/media images they internalise, reject or create. Moreoever, the images that appear to them in dreams or trances are no less real to them than the harsh events of the material world.
Ferrara takes what is very often the modern, overworked cliché of a film-within-a-film and its making (he himself had already mined this device both in Dangerous Game  and The Blackout ), and revitalises it through the extreme, elliptical economy of his concurrent, story/character-mosaic montage. A great deal is packed – even to the point of becoming cryptic – into its 90 or so minutes.
A hallucinatory, provocative film ceaselessly torn between the spectre of global violence and the possibility of personal redemption, Mary is classic Ferrara. And you will never forget the paroxysmic rallying cry from Ted in his Christlike Passion inside a projection booth: “The film is the bomb!”
© Adrian Martin June 2006