Jean-Luc Godard's "Hail Mary"

"Deeply wounds the religious sentiments of believers." – Pope John Paul II
With the appointment of a new pope, the beginning of Holy Week and President Obama's recent trip to the Holy Land, Christianity seems rather topical these days. So with that in mind, I wanted to look at one of the most fascinating, profound and controversial films ever made to deal with the Christian faith.

When Jean-Luc Godard's 1985 film Hail Mary (Je vous salue, Marie) was initially released, it set off a firestorm of protest. According to an article in a contemporary issue of Film Quarterly, the film was met with everything from "the Pope's Vatican Radio denunciations and Italian magazine covers depicting barebreasted blondes on crucifixes, to Catholics lighting candles and shaking rosaries outside offending theaters." The film was banned and the subject of boycotts, and religious leaders worldwide deemed it blasphemous (the above quote, which the DVD displays almost as a badge of honor on its cover, is just one example). But what was at the heart of the controversy? Why all this fuss? First and foremost, there was the plot.

Godard's film is a modern day retelling of the virgin birth. Here, Mary (Myriem Roussel) is a basketball-playing high school student who works at her father's gas station. Her boyfriend, Joseph (Thierry Rode), is a school drop-out who drives a cab. Mary suddenly becomes pregnant. But she's a virgin. How can this be? Predictably, Joseph is not exactly thrilled by this news. Rather, as would be expected, he is confused, suspicious and, at times, angry. The angel Gabriel (Philippe Lacoste), arriving via airplane, tries to provide some reassurance, but the situation is not an easy one for Mary, Joseph and their friends and family. How does a young girl like this cope with such a thing, and how does this sudden revelation affect her life, her worldview and her relationships?

These are the more reflective issues explored by Hail Mary. But to some, these ideas—indeed this very story—are not to be tampered with. Instead of seeing the film as a unique way in which to examine what such an occurrence would mean for those involved, instead of seeing the evolution of young Mary from average teenager to sacred vessel as one of deep religious transformation, many saw it easier to dismiss the film immediately, often sight unseen.

Adding to the objections was the considerable amount of nudity in the film. Roussel was well into her twenties by this point, so she wasn't really a teenager, thus her age shouldn't have been a factor. But perhaps the idea of seeing this present-day virgin mother naked was too much for some. However, in all reality, the nudity makes perfect sense. Here you have a young, chaste girl inexplicably with child. Doesn't it stand to reason that her body would be of the utmost importance? Wouldn't it be natural for her to therefore appear naked when she questions and examines her predicament? Or, take it from Joseph's angle. He hasn't touched her. Has someone else? Is she lying? ("I'm pregnant but still a virgin" would be a pretty tough declaration to go along with.) Obviously her body is now sacred, but Joseph is after all a young man. He probably has desires as would any other. Maybe he could at least see her naked?

In any event, Hail Mary was met with its fair share of detractors. And as such, many people have not seen the picture. Most have probably never even heard of it. But it's a worthwhile film, one that, if nothing else, should elicit some discussion and consideration. If one can step back from the sacredness of the Biblical text and just look at the film for what it is and what it presents there are moments of tremendous power to be discovered, even for nonbelievers or those of another belief. Hail Mary speculates on a great number of issues pertaining to the nature of faith, of human interaction and of how potential or actual holiness can situate itself in a contemporary world. This being a Godard film, none of this is simplistically spelled out, but it is there.
Hail Mary could be placed roughly in the middle of Godard's third phase of filmmaking. This is nearly two decades after his "French New Wave" days and years after his overtly political video experimentations and his Dziga Vertov period of filmmaking in the 1970s. By this point in his career, Godard was in the midst of a return of sorts to more narrative but nonetheless radically inventive productions. Such blatant religiousness was rare though. There was occasional religious imagery in his films, and the irregular quote alluding provocatively to religion would pop up (from Weekend (1967): "Didn't you hear what he said? Marx says we're all brothers!" "Marx didn't say that. Some other communist said that. Jesus said that."), but there was nothing like this. Later though, in his multi-part Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988-98) this passage stands out: "Cinema, like Christianity, isn’t grounded in historical truth. It tells a story and says, 'Now, believe.' Not 'Have faith in this story as you do in history,' but 'Believe, whatever happens.'"

Godard himself was raised Protestant, but at the time of Hail Mary he no longer practiced. However, as he said in the aforementioned Film Quarterly, "I'm very interested in Catholicism. I think there's something so strong in the way the Bible was written, how it speaks of events that are happening today, how it contains statements about things which have happened in the past. I think, well – it's a great book!" He continues, "And somehow I think we need faith, or I need faith, or I'm lacking faith. Therefore maybe I needed a story which is bigger than myself."

Hardly the words of one who is seeking to wound the religious sentiments of believers.

Ultimately, Hail Mary joins the ranks of films like the groundbreaking The Miracle (1948) made in years previous and such works as The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Passion of the Christ (2004) and even Dogma (1999) made since; it is a film of significant meaning and remarkable artistry, but one that tends to get obscured by a controversy that, in all reality, was relatively isolated and, in time, proved to be rather reactionary.

If you're looking for something different to watch this time of year, Hail Mary would certainly be a bold selection, but a worthy one. As a side note though, if you're seeking a more conventionally religious film, one still presented in an innovative fashion by a most unlikely of filmmakers, Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), which I've written on before, would be another recommendation.  


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