Mary lacks graceJean-Luc Godard's Hail Mary opened last Friday at Orson Welles amid demonstrations pro and con. A film of the kind that normally draws only minor crowds is now the talk of the town. Evidently, we face here a fresh example of a principle well-established for centuries: that a whole chorus of critics singing in unison could not produce the promotional impact of a condemnation by the Church.
It would have been better, however, had the Vatican's wrath benefitted a different film; for whatever its religious stance, as a work of art Hail Mary is downright disappointing.
The story of Hail Mary is quickly told: it re-enacts the first chapters of the Gospels in a suburb of Geneva. Mary is the daughter of a gasoline station owner, and plays basketball in a local team. The Annunciation is performed by a certain "uncle Gabriel," who does not waste words in getting his messages across. Then there is Joseph, a taxi driver, who obviously has a hard time understanding virgin birth, especially since it involves his girlfriend.
Mary's gradual acceptance of her mission, her sexual restraint and its recognition by Joseph are the main themes of the film. It ends with the birth of Jesus and his first deeds as a little boy.
To placate the theologically inclined, Godard has interwoven his Nativity with a representation of the Fall -- like a side-panel on some medieval altarpiece, as a reminder of what is to be redeemed. Here, not the least attractive of the film's inventions, it figures as a superficial and ill-fated love-affair of a foreign philosopher with a young woman. Her name is Eve, as we find out by one of those emphatically subtle remarks of which Godard seems particularly fond.
One would imagine a film which has generated such heat to contain an unorthodox, daring interpretation of its subject matter. Surprisingly, in this case the opposite is true -- unless, of course, one is willing to see the very fact that even saints have genitals as something of a revelation. Rather than too much, Godard bestowes too little flesh and blood on his Mary. He fails to impart more than an abstract sense to her initial bewilderment and ultimate compliance. He strives to represent her with so much reverence that he almost ends up not representing her at all.
Sometimes, the device of transposition becomes a bit too pedantic. For example, when little Jesus joins some friends for soccer, he asks their names, then tells them he will call them Peter and James. If this seems as silly to you as it seemed to me, you may be partially consoled by the circumstance that instances like this are much more rare than they could have been. Yet it is hard to escape the feeling that they are somehow intrinsic to Godard's approach.
Stylistically, Hail Mary fits into the pattern that in recent years has become Godard's trademark. He employs a fragmented, associative narrative with drastic cuts and a plethora of side-references. As in Passion or First Name: Carmen, in Hail Mary this style looks mannered and soon becomes tiresome to watch. In particular, Godard fails to convince that his multitude of images adds up to a clear and consistent vocabulary. Planes taking off or waves on the beach have so many symbolic connotations that their mere inclusion looks gratuitous, or cosmetic at best.
Not all is bad, fortunately. Whatever the general conception of his film, Godard remains a director who knows his camera, and Hail Mary contains many an enthralling shot, inspired scene, or interesting composition. But this cannot make up for the general impression of the film: that it is essentially flawed, and undeserving of the attention it has received.
The showing of Hail Mary is preceded by The Book of Mary, a half-hour long reflection on the reaction of a young girl to the imminent divorce of her parents. The unpretentious direction of Godard's associate Anne-Marie Mieville and impeccable acting make this appetizer far more palatable than the main course.