It’s a story that was already miraculous as it unfolded, its profound mystery and legend only deepening in the intervening years. A transcendent moment of desperation and triumph, of the world ending and being reborn, of redemption, of proof of the divine. Those last seconds ticking down, the fate of everything in the balance, a shooting arc across the sky that seems to scrape the seat of heaven itself, hurtling back to earth with a rousing chorus of hosannas. And then… Caught! Salvation! Enough to make you believe in miracles, despite the benighted times: Miami, the day after Thanksgiving 1984, the impossible manifesting itself before your eyes … oh wait, sorry, wrong Hail Mary.
You wonder if the exception taken to Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary upon its 1985 release had less to do with its alleged blasphemous content and subject matter than how genuinely inconsequential and dull it is as a film. Seen from a remove of 20 years, and now at a time when religious films have traded piety for pornographic violence, it’s hard to see what could’ve gotten Catholics’ dander up, back then, aside from a little bit of skin.
Ponderously meditative at best, soporificly dull at worst, and archly pretentious throughout, Godard’s contemporary reimagining of the story of the Virgin Mary, from the Annunciation through to the birth and early years of Jesus’ life, is, if anything, chaste and rather quaint in its way. It doesn’t court controversy but rather, understanding and revelation. It seeks to contextualize and secularize a religious mystery in the quotidian present. But, true to expectation, Hail Mary‘s release was greeted with a (ahem) hail of religious wrath, provoking a stern denunciation by Pope John Paul II, and spurring knee-jerk protests outside of theaters by concerned Catholics who hadn’t seen, and had no intention of seeing, the film in question. Lucky them…
So then, what’s the fuss? Marie is a young carefree girl who splits her time between playing basketball and tending to her father’s service station. One night, her taxi driving boyfriend, Joseph (naturally), ferries a rather surly disheveled man named Gabriel to the station, where he (Gabriel) announces to Marie that she is with child, which is certainly news to her, seeing as she’s still a virgin. Naturally, Joseph doesn’t take this well, since he and Marie have never slept together, but Marie staunchly defends her chastity, which is confirmed by her family doctor. The two struggle to accept her mysterious and unknowable condition, Marie trying to embrace faith and accept what she knows to be impossible, Joseph trying to reconcile love and trust with his suspicions of infidelity. Their arguments, which are really the only drama in an otherwise fractured and listless narrative, orbit around central religious mysteries, yet barely ever brush on profundity.
Godard counterpoints the main story with brief interludes of an affair between a philosopher and a student named Eve. They dance around one another about questions of the origins and nature of life, whether there must be some prime mover of man or whether he did indeed evolve from the primordial soup. I think it all has something to do with the Garden of Eden (Eve is seen taken a rather luxurious bite of an apple) and the Fall of Man, but mostly it just seems to be about an older pedantic blowhard taking advantage of and betraying his younger, innocent, lover. And we never really see enough or learn enough of these two characters to really care about their fate, or even why they are necessary to the film. Indeed, though both stories orbit around the foci of love and faith, each is so drained of emotion and life as to project little or no real resonance.
Of course, with Godard at the helm you know this alienating detachment is deliberate, which only makes Hail Mary harder to read. It sounds on paper like it might be tending towards parody and dark comedy, but its self-serious solemnity belies those charges. A long slog even at a lean 75 minutes, Hail Mary is a tedious fugue of fractured narrative, punctuated by startling bursts of Bach and Dvorak, and edited into fragmentary, though often beatific, incoherence. Didacticism bordering on the pedantic coalesces around these questions of the relation of body to soul and vice versa; faith versus science; trust versus betrayal; divine versus evolutionary origins of life; and the primacy of divine love over love of the flesh. But there’s just this profound and damning disconnect between Godard’s imagery (which is never less than enthralling) and the words that trip and fall of dead out characters’ mouths.
Rather than these two storylines complementing one another, the film visually seems at odds with what it is explicitly telling us. And in the end, despite a fair bit of female nudity (which is what the Church took main exception to, refusing to believe that Mary might have actually had a body beneath all her robes. None of this nudity is lascivious or prurient in anyway), the Church had little to fear from this mostly limp and theologically timid film from one of the all time great cinematic provocateurs.
Hail Mary is accompanied by a 25 minute short by longtime Godard collaborator Anne-Marie Mieville, who worked on Hail Mary, as well. Indeed, Mieville’s film, The Book of Mary, preceded theatrical showings of Hail Mary during the 1985 release, and they were meant to be viewed together as a piece, as complementary works. Light and buoyant, despite being about a disintegrating marriage and its effect on a young daughter, Mieville’s short is as enjoyable as Hail Mary is tiring. Simple and devoid of pretension, and featuring a delightful turn by one Rebecca Hampton as the girl who shields her self from grief in fantasy and interpretive dance (to Mahler…okay, I guess that’s pretentious), The Book of Mary barely hits a tangent on the themes raised by Hail Mary, but seems the more spiritual film nonetheless, finding a depth in its relative economy that Godard never manages. It stands rather well on its own, and though it’s supposed to be viewed first in the program, I found it the perfect antidote to my flagging spirits after bearing with Hail Mary.
And The Book of Mary‘s inclusion as an integral part of the main feature means that a bizarre, disjointed 20 minute featurette is the only real extra on the disc. Presented as “Notes” on Hail Mary, Godard riffs on the central themes of the film, leaning heavily on early Freudian interpretations of Christianity that never seems to make there way into the finished film. He also interviews Myriem Roussel (the actress who plays Marie) several times, coaching her into her part, directing her how to inhabit Marie and embody the themes of the film. Discursive and just as incoherent as the main film itself, this confounding feature simply raises more questions about Godard’s intentions than clarifying anything, and I guess is a totally apropos final word on a totally confounding and disappointing film.