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July 10, 2007
Initially condemned by the Pope and banned across Europe and North America, Jean-Luc Godard's Hail Mary is a thought-provoking and unusual perspective on the Virgin birth, set in modern-day Switzerland. Godard has always been a most divisive filmmaker, going back to the release of his revolutionary À bout de soufflé, and it goes without saying that Hail Mary is no exception to his polemical nature.

In the film, Mary (Myriem Rousell, who had earlier appeared in Godard's Passion and First Name: Carmen ) is a young student, the daughter of a gas station owner, who finds herself with child after an angel's Annunciation. Coming to terms with this situation, of course, won't be easy, and the film makes sure to illustrate the conglomeration of feelings that gather inside of the Virgin: confusion, pain, fear and eventually acceptance and love. Her boyfriend, Joseph (Theirry Rode), does not believe her when she explains to him that she hasn't slept with anyone, and their relationship will falter as a consequence. Their struggle to cope with said circumstances will draw them closer, however, and Joseph in turn will have to observe Mary from a distance, forcing himself to love her without touching her.

In his New York Times review of the film, published on October 7th 1985, Vincent Canby makes a good point when writing "Mr. Godard is being disingenuous when he says the film is not about the Virgin Mary, but about 'a young woman named Mary who, at a certain moment in her life, finds herself part of an exceptional event that she would never have wished for herself.' If he had no intention of evoking parallels guaranteed to stir up publicity and predictable outrage, he might have made his point more clearly by calling the young woman not Mary but Debbie and her fiancé not Joseph but Edward."

Godard, then, who is clearly recreating the Nativity story, may have wished to disconnect himself from any religious controversy, in the choosing of the names, and some of the situations depicted and whatnot are not arbitrary in the slightest, as they're unmistakably close to the New Testament. So it is because of that the film proved to be so controversial after its release - but was all this controversy warranted at all? Come the end of the film, one still wonders about the point of it all, especially while the director's intentions are ambiguous at best, thus giving way to a work that is somewhat absorbing and lyrical, although in the end its disjointed murkiness and frequent incongruence distance it from being a real success.

Undoubtedly, what may have caused such havoc among viewers (especially Christian ones) is the realism with which Godard examines Mary's naked body. Indeed, the scenes of a fully naked Mary are often questionable, and, while not pornographic per se, there isn't a whole artistry to it all; a little more delicacy would've been more effective, as there isn't a whole lot of sense in having all these close-ups. I don't think, however, that Godard set out to offend anyone with the film -- as a Catholic, I wasn't offended -- even if John Paul II's statements regarding the film (that it "deeply wounds the religious sentiments of believers") are more than understandable.

While the film's impression of unbalance ultimately work for its detriment, Hail Mary is no downright failure; it is very intriguing from a visual perspective (beautiful shots of nature are interspersed throughout the film) and Godard's plunge into more spiritual material is rather rewarding throughout, although in the end it amounts to little. An apt description would be to say that Hail Mary reunites Godard's best and worst sides: on one hand, its philosophical ruminations are engrossing to a point (not just Mary's struggle and acceptance of her fecundation, which lead her to ponder questions regarding the soul and the body, but there are also many other themes involving the creation of the universe and whatnot, as the film's parallel storyline is that of a science class studying the origins of life on earth); his way with actors is phenomenal, as shown in Myriem Roussel's extraordinary performance and the cinematography is stunning, embodying scenes of alluring natural beauty like a sunset, moving water (one of the film's main motifs), etc.

On the other hand, the film is an incoherent mess, with little to no dramatic pull, barely registering with the viewer in the emotional department. Furthermore, its use of intermittent pieces of music (an element Godard's very keen on having) reaches unimaginable levels of aggravation. That Godard is constantly trying to distance himself from the conventionalities of cinema is evident, as he has done it from the very start of his career, but simply because he feels like subverting the rules of standard Hollywood fare doesn't mean it's always going to be effective: regarding his particular use of music, sometimes it works (as in My Life to Live) and sometimes it doesn't -- in Hail Mary it becomes particularly obnoxious, regardless of whether the pieces of classical music are beautiful or not (and they should be, as there are pieces by Bach, Dvorak and John Coltrane). But, just because Godard wants to make a point doesn't mean he has to do it over and over, or that he has to beat the viewer with a baseball bat so that they get it -- in this aspect, there was no subtlety or restrain, as in much of the film.

As such, while Hail Mary is somewhat loyal to its source, there aren't many reasons as to why we should care about what's happening onscreen; it's an interesting film whose main attraction is its supposedly 'controversial' nature, and it doesn't offer a whole lot beyond the peculiarity aspect. As far as Godard's films go, stick to his 60s output and you'll find yourself watching a bunch of far more impressive films than this one - even Anne-Marie Miéville's short that precedes it, The Book of Mary- about a little girl whose parents decide to split up - is both better and more engrossing. Overall, occasional viewers won't find a lot of value in the film, and it's not guaranteed that diehard Godard fans will, either.

SEE ALSO: www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/03/godard.html

--
Pabs Hernandez
A staff writer for LAS, Pablo Hernandez keeps up pretty well with the ever-changing 'indie scene' from his home in Madrid, Spain.

See other articles by Pabs Hernandez.

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