Hail Mary

June 10, 2011

For the last few weeks, the Neptune theater in Seattle has been swamped with angry phone calls and letters insisting that the theater not show Hail Mary, the new film from Jean-Luc Godard. This follows the pattern of protests that greeted the film’s arrival in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston—not to mention Rome, where it was officially denounced by Pope John Paul II.

What’s the trouble? It seems Godard, the aging bad boy of the French cinema, has come up with a modern telling of the Nativity, in which Mary is a high-school basketball player and the daughter of a gas station owner, and Joseph is a cab driver. Most outrageous of all, the film contains ample nudity, most of it Mary’s.

Well, that certainly sounds blasphemous, anyway. And that’s enough for the letter-writers, who have warned the Neptune’s manager of the eternal consequences of showing the film, and sometimes damned him to hell outright. (A sampling of letters is hanging in the Neptune’s display window.)

One little problem here: The people writing the letters have not seen the film. (At last report, the pope hadn’t seen it, either.) If they had, they might have been surprised to find a film that does not degrade or demean religious history or tradition. Indeed, the reaction among some people who attended the advance screening here was shock—at just how reverent and serious Godard’s film really is.

Like most of Godard’s work, Hail Mary will be inaccessible to many. Godard was the most important filmmaker of the 1960s, but his revolutionary work—Breathless, Pierrot le Fou, Masculine Feminine—will always be hated by some. Hail Mary isn’t going to change their minds.

It’s a fragmented, often obscure film, consisting of disconnected scenes, patches of music, odd scraps of narration and literary and cinematic allusions. Mary (Myriem Roussel) is informed by Gabriel, a burly fellow who forgets his lines, that she is pregnant. She is a virgin who does not allow her boyfriend Joseph (Thierry Lacoste) to touch her, so they are both perplexed.

Godard examines the relationship between the physical and the spiritual; in part by juxtaposing Mary’s story with another fragmented plot about a doomed affair, in part with the many lingering shots of Mary’s naked figure and scattered glimpses of natural phenomena—water, flowers, the movement of the sun.

There are many beautiful images. A celestial plane mysteriously disappears into the vast setting sun. Joseph’s hand stretches toward Mary’s bare, pregnant belly. Mary and her newborn son emerge joyously from a swimming pool.

In this way, Godard turns a traditional story—elevated, ethereal, enervated—into a fleshly, palpable reality. It’s a strange version of the story, of course, and Godard must have known he would infuriate a lot of people with it. But he seems to have taken the job of revitalizing this story very seriously. It’s a noble, searching effort, not glib or irreverent.

Hail Mary opens with a separate—or is it?—short film, The Book of Mary, directed by Godard’s frequent collaborator, Anne-Marie Mieville. It is exquisite, and Mieville should be encouraged to make her own full-length features.

First published in the Herald, February 1986

I saw the movie for the first time in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the fall of ’85, at (I think) the Orson Welles Cinema, virtually (if not literally) by myself; earlier in the evening I had seen Pasolini’s Accatone at the Brattle Theatre. That was a fun night. The film caused the usual controversy, as described above, from holy people who respond to blasphemy/perceived blasphemy by wishing other people would die, or at least burn in hell for all eternity. Godard has a new movie, Film Socialisme, which hasn’t played in Seattle as of this writing, but is due soon, and has already prompted plenty of “I don’t get it, therefore l’Emperor must be wearing new clothes,” which is something philistines like to do.