In Mary, Abel Ferrara throws a lot of information at the viewer in a little amount of time and most of it's not without interest. But amidst all the film-within-a-film formal play, interviews with real life theologians, interpolated television footage of Middle East unrest, and earnest discussions of personal faith, the central throughline boils down to little more than a story of a man coming to accept a personal engagement with Christ and vowing to live a better life when confronted with tragedy. Yet even this story, intellectually dull where much of the film is stimulating, gets over on the heightened intensity Ferrara brings to its presentation and the impassioned emoting of Forest Whitaker.
Whitaker plays Ted Younger, a talk show host whose program consists of surprisingly measured discussions about the nature of Christ. (Astonishingly such a program - engaging as it does in intelligent discussion of various conflicting doctrines rather than mere hysterical proselytizing - has earned him top ratings.) But there's little indication that Younger takes any personal interest in his subject, content to confine his involvement to the level of the intellectual. Still when his wife goes into labor and complications threaten both her life and that of his newborn son, he begins to reflect on his own spiritual condition, ruing his past sexual infidelities, vowing to be a better husband and accepting a more doctrinaire view of Christianity. Younger's conversion finds its vivid apotheosis in an impassioned church scene in which, like Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, Whitaker emits various tortured squeals while speaking out his appeal to a wooden Christ. Ferrara cuts between the actor's face enshrouded in darkness and the icon surrounded by the light seeping through a window. The symbolic juxtaposition may be obvious, but as a statement of a hard-won faith, the scene's earnestness is tough to dismiss.
Running parallel to, and intersecting with, Younger's crisis is the story of Tony Childress (Matthew Modine), a filmmaker who has just wrapped a production of This is My Blood, a revisionist take on the Christ story, especially with regard to the role of Mary Magdalene. Taking his cue from the apocryphal Book of Mary (whose contents are expounded for the audience by Gnostic Gospels author Elaine Paigels), Childress fashions his story from the idea that Magdalene was not a whore, but one of Christ's disciples, challenging Peter for leadership and finally marginalized in historical accounts because of her gender. The film-within-a-film, of which Ferrara includes ample chunks, hardly seems very accomplished, striking a tone of pedantic solemnity and consisting of dark, nearly illegible close-ups, but it allows the filmmaker to explore another, more feminized, understanding of Christian doctrine and then, later, to confirm Younger's conversion by having him reject, on his television show, the reading offered by Childress' film.
Childress, for his part, is at once unbearably self-obsessed and admirably serious, a man who, only half-jokingly, cites the financial success of The Passion of the Christ as his reason for making his own film, but then brings an impressive commitment to the project. At the movie's premiere, as picketers both Jewish and Christian protest the screening and the theater is evacuated due to a bomb threat, Childress locks himself in the projection booth and screens his film for an audience of one - the ultimate expression of directorial egotism - as Ferrara brings his own film to a typically overheated close. As far as explosive moments go, this ending scarcely compares to a few that the director's already given us - an attempted carjacking shot in jerkily incoherent handheld, a bomb blowing apart a Shabbat dinner table in Jerusalem, Whitaker's aforementioned histrionics - but conjuring the very real possibility of annihilation seems the only proper way to end such a heavily charged exploration of modern faith. Ultimately, what defines the film's method is the alternation of these hysterical rhetorical outbursts with measured, intelligent discourse, the juxtaposition of theological complexity with a simplistic acceptance of doctrine. Ferrara doesn't try to sort out all these contradictions of tone and meaning, he simply lays them all in the viewer's lap and lets him make out of them what he will. This is finally what makes Mary both so exhilarating and so frustrating.