Demonstrations also erupted in the United States, leading Triumph Films, a Columbia Pictures subsidiary, to cancel its distribution agreement. New Yorker Films, a respected art-cinema distributor, promptly acquired the rights and brought the film to numerous American cities. Its first US showings were at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where thousands of picketers turned out. Godard participated in a press conference at the festival but left New York before the public screenings. The head of the Film Society of Lincoln Center implored Godard to stay, noting that the festival had staunchly supported him during the controversy. "It's only a movie," the filmmaker replied.
As usual in such cases, the fuss resulted in higher visibility and ticket sales for Hail Mary, which is anything but "only a movie." Like other Godard films of the 1980s-Every Man for Himself, Passion, First Name: Carmen,
It's also a film Godard cared about very much. He provided its $600,000 budget with his own money, and when funds ran low he halted the production to make a more commercial picture (Detective) whose profits would pay for its completion. The expense of Hail Mary was caused partly by its stunning nature footage, meant to frame Mary's story with an aura of literally miraculous beauty. To get images of high enough quality, Godard shot 90,000 meters of film, which was "usually enough for four films," he said at the time.
It's helpful for first-time viewers to have a few tips on how Hail Mary is structured. To begin with, it's not a single film. Godard's feature is preceded by a 25-minute short called The Book of Mary, written and directed by Anne-Marie Miéville, who has been Godard's personal and professional partner for more than 30 years. Miéville's film centers on a girl named Mary whose parents are splitting up, which upsets her at first, but proves to be not so bad when she matures a bit and settles into new routines with them. Although it was made separately from the Godard feature that follows it, The Book of Mary introduces such relevant themes as the meaning of love and the difficulty of facing a mysterious future.
Godard's film, which follows immediately, retells the story of the Virgin Mary in a modern setting. The heroine, played to perfection by Myriem Roussel, is a young Swiss woman who works in her father's gas station, plays basketball in her spare time, and is engaged to marry Joseph, a taxi driver. She finds out she'll give birth to the son of God when the angel Gabriel arrives by plane, telling her she's pregnant even though she's never had sex. This puzzles her and angers Joseph, who's convinced his girlfriend must have slept with someone else. Much of the story focuses on the contrast between Mary's quiet faith and Joesph's gradual realization that they're involved in a divine mystery much larger than themselves. Eventually the baby is born and the couple, still a bit perplexed, try to resume their normal lives.
There are also two subplots. One is about Joseph's break with Juliette, his former girlfriend. The other concerns a student having an affair with a professor from Eastern Europe, who believes human life was created by an intelligent power in some other part of the universe. It's easier to understand the film if you know the first scene is between Joseph and Juliette, not Joseph and Mary, and that the subplot about the professor never intersects with the main storyline about Mary and her mission.
Hail Mary is more like a cinematic collage than a normal movie, starting with the fact that it's actually two separate films spliced together. Miéville's contribution is fairly straightforward, if ambiguous and open-ended, but Godard's is very fragmented, thanks to stop-and-start music, title cards that interrupt the image flow, discontinuous editing-cutting between a basketball and the moon, for instance-and storytelling that hopscotches among different subplots, leaves out large chunks of time, and stretches small incidents into major detours from the main narrative. These devices serve Godard's purpose of disrupting the rules of cinema so our imaginations can soar to places no ordinary film could take us to. The result is a movie that uses the material properties of film (montage, composition, color) to suggest hard-to-grasp qualities of spiritual intuition and philosophical, even theological awareness.
It's obvious that Godard wouldn't make such a demanding film just to titillate audiences with shocking material, whatever all those protesters may have thought. Many attacks on the movie singled out his decision to show Mary nude several times, but there's a long tradition of official church-sponsored art that does the same thing, using nudity to symbolize Mary's humanity and her role as Christianity's nurturing mother. By using modern techniques to depict Mary in a modern world, Godard clearly hoped to bring her story alive for modern moviegoers, and perhaps to understand its meaning better himself.
"I'm not a religious person," Godard said when Hail Mary was released, "but I'm a faithful person. I believe in images. I have no children, only movies." He and Miéville never created more original, challenging, or enthralling images than in the two intriguing movies of Hail Mary. For more information about Hail Mary, visit New Yorker Films. To order Hail Mary, go to TCM Shopping.
by Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt