When Jean-Luc Godard’s 1985 film Hail Mary 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 was the subject of boycotts, and religious leaders worldwide deemed it blasphemous (a quote from Pope John Paul II, stating that the movie, “deeply wounds the religious sentiments of believers,” was displayed on a previously issued DVD almost as a badge of honor).
At the heart of the controversy, first and foremost, was the plot. Godard’s film is a modern-day retelling of the virgin birth. Here, Mary (Myriem Roussel) is a basketball-playing student who works at her father’s gas station. Her boyfriend, Joseph (Thierry Rode), is a high school drop-out who drives a cab. Mary suddenly becomes pregnant. But she’s a virgin. Predictably, Joseph is not exactly thrilled by the 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 or Joseph. How does a young girl like this cope with such a thing, and how does this sudden revelation affect her life, her worldview, her relationships, and her faith?
These are the more reflective issues explored by Hail Mary. To some, these ideas — indeed this 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. Now available on a Cohen Media Group Blu-ray for the first time, this contentious title from one of Godard’s most eclectic and productive periods of filmmaking can be newly appreciated (or damned). Its subject matter is surely provocative, and its visuals are among Godard’s most effective: Mary writhing in bed, tormented by physical and mental anguish, nature in all its seasonal variations, intimate close-ups, and interior illumination as only Godard can compose. No question, save for his video works from the 1970s (where high definition seems to go against their very intentions) any Blu-ray transfer of a Godard feature is going to be a welcome one.
The controversy surrounding the film is brought up several times in the disc’s bonus features. The decent but generally unilluminating commentary track featuring director Hal Hartley and Museum of the Moving Image curator David Schwarz, as well as interviews with Roussel, Antoine de Baecque, and Pierre Rissient all, to one degree or another, hit on the incendiary nature of the film and whether or not such a reaction is in any way justified (it really isn’t). The three discussions manage to bring something new to the table in terms of distinctive background information. Roussel primarily relates her introduction to Godard (having first worked with him on Passion 3 years earlier; a more than professional relationship also apparently developed), de Baecque approaches Hail Mary from a historical and critical vantage point, and Rissient, an assistant on Breathless in 1960, reminisces about his involvement with Godard from the filmmaker’s earliest days. The 20-minute “A Few Notes About the Film Hail Mary,” Godard’s fascinating video companion piece, does manage to do a little in the way of disclosing the film’s genesis (roots in Freud and psychoanalysis, as it turns out). As informative as any of these other additions, though, essays by Charles Warren and especially David Sterritt are also beneficially included. And last but not least, as was originally intended, Hail Mary itself is preceded by Anne-Marie Miéville’s The Book of Mary, a short film that indirectly alludes to some similar thematic preoccupations of the feature to come.
Adding to the objections pointed at the film was the considerable amount of nudity. Roussel wasn’t really a teenager, so her age shouldn’t have been a factor, but nevertheless, perhaps the idea of seeing this present-day virgin mother naked was too much for some. In all reality, the nudity makes perfect sense. Here you have a young, chaste girl inexplicably with child. It stands to reason that her body would be of the utmost importance. It’s natural for her to appear naked when she questions and examines her predicament. Hartley speaks of Godard’s almost latent feminism, and here as much as in any of his other movies, he does approach the distinctly feminine aspects of Mary’s dilemma with care and empathy.
Take the sudden pregnancy from Joseph’s point of view and it’s another story. He hasn’t touched her. Has someone else? Is she lying? Mary’s being with child yet her insistence on her virginity would be a pretty tough declaration to go along with. “What is this? Miracles don’t exist,” he exclaims at one point. Obviously, her body is now sacred, but Joseph is a young man. He has desires and questions as would any other. Gabriel tries to ease the tension, but he only gets further perturbed by Joseph’s attitude. At one point, the angel (here a somewhat thuggish fellow) complains that Joseph makes him forget his lines. Only toward the end does the couple reach some sort of acceptance or, as Hartley suggests, they at least confront their situation. There are still questions, of course. Once the child is born, Mary’s father practically wonders, “Will he call Joseph ‘dad’?”
Partly due to Hail Mary’s international detractors, many average moviegoers have probably not seen this film. Most have probably never even heard of it. This is unfortunate, as it’s a worthwhile movie, 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 faith. Hail Mary speculates on a great number of issues pertaining to the nature of spirituality, 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 or explicitly spelled out, but it is there. By comparison with other films from his post-1966 career though, Hail Mary does have a relatively straightforward plot progression. The only exception here are the occasional diversions to focus on a parallel tale of a professor having an affair with one of his students. This side story is more or less a (typical?) relationship in counterpoint to what Mary and Joseph are going through. The teacher also goes into some detail about notions of our grand existence as a matter of scientific reality, contrasting with the more indefinite and divine life in the primary narrative.
Hail Mary could be placed in the middle of Godard’s third phase of filmmaking (ever the innovator, he’s arguably in the midst of his fourth, possibly fifth, now). This is nearly two decades after his French New Wave days and years after his overtly political video experimentations and Dziga Vertov period of filmmaking in the 1970s. By this point in his career, Godard was working within a more standard, though nonetheless radically unique, mode of production. Such blatant religiousness was rare, however. There was occasional religious imagery in his films, and an irregular quote alluding provocatively to religion would pop up (from Weekend: “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, in his multi-part Histoire(s) du Cinéma, 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. 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.
At any rate, Hail Mary joins the ranks of films like the groundbreaking The Miracle made in years previous and such works as The Last Temptation of Christ, The Passion of the Christ and even Dogma made later. 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, over time, proved to be rather reactionary.
— Jeremy Carr