When Jean-Luc Godard's "Hail Mary" opens tomorrow at the Biograph, it brings with it a controversy that has reached the Vatican, that has inspired pickets, phone and letter-writing campaigns, denunciations from the pulpit, several acts of vandalism and intimidation, and at least one incident in the United States of serious violence.
In the film, Godard translates the Nativity story to contemporary life. He portrays Mary as a girl who plays basketball and works in a gas station; Joseph is a taxi driver and the angel Gabriel a tough guy who keeps the jealous Joseph in line. The film includes profane language and shows Mary in various stages of undress. Catholics and others who have protested the film regard these elements as blasphemous.
Anticipating a religious controversy here, the District's leading theater chains, the Circle and K-B, as well as the Key Theatre in Georgetown, decided for this and other reasons not to play the picture. Instead, it will play at Georgetown's Biograph, a small repertory house, for a one-week run.
"The subject matter was just something I didn't think I'd want to show," said Circle President Ted Pedas.
Seymour Berman, the head of marketing and booking at Circle, cited other factors, including the fact that the film's distributor, New Yorker Films, is only offering "Hail Mary" for one- or two-week runs, that the Circle's theaters are already booked heavily with art films and his own assessment of the film's limited box office potential.
Other theater owners confirmed that the controversy played a role in their decision not to book the movie. "You're going to maybe subject your theater to damage and your employes to a lot of abuse," the Key's David Levy said. "And you have to ask, 'Is this movie important enough for that?' "
Said K-B's Ronald Goldman: "If there was a lot of money involved, I'd take the flak -- I've done it before. But [not] if you're not going to make money and you're going to alienate a substantial element of the movie-going public."
Both Levy and Goldman, who are Jewish, mentioned the possibility of an anti-Semitic backlash as another factor in their decision. Anti-Semitism has figured in protests in other cities. Barry Solan, who played the film in the TLA Theater in Philadelphia (and who is Jewish), remembers "really nasty stuff. 'Please do not say it cannot happen again -- it can happen again.' 'You Jews will do anything for money.' "
Even in situations where no Jews were involved, protests have assumed an anti-Semitic drift. "They would call up and say, 'How would you feel if I desecrated the Torah?' " George Mansour, of the Cambridge, Mass., Orson Welles Cinema, said. "And I would say, 'Since I'm a Christian Lebanese homosexual, I don't care what you do to the Torah.' That really set them off."
The protests, which tend to include votive candles and the chanting of the rosary, have been organized by a number of church and antiabortion groups, which in many cases bring their members in by bus. "It's the same group that pickets the abortion clinics and scares little girls on Sunday afternoons," said Pat Moran, a self-described former Catholic, who played the film earlier this year at the Charles Theatre in Baltimore. "I know because one of the cops told me he recognized them."
While the protests generally involve legitimate church and Catholic lay organizations, protests in New York and Boston were organized in part by the Society for Tradition, Family and Property, an all-male, extreme right-wing group with chapters in 13 countries. The society's literature has also popped up at several other protests across the country. The Brazil-based organization, which is financed by wealthy families primarily in South America, is a supporter of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and has been banned for its paramilitary activities in Venezuela, where it was implicated in 1984 in a plot to assassinate the pope. (The group has denied the charges, and no formal charges were brought.)
Although Godard is generally regarded by critics and scholars as one of the world's preeminent filmmakers, "Hail Mary" nearly didn't get a release in this country. The film was originally to have been distributed by Triumph, a subsidiary of Columbia Pictures and thus of Columbia's parent company, image-conscious Coca-Cola, but was dropped suddenly last fall.
"Hail Mary" has thus far grossed roughly $350,000 in about 35 American cities, drawing an audience that was probably increased by publicity generated by the controversy. (At last year's New York Film Festival, Godard quipped that the pope was his press agent.)
Critical response has been mixed. Writing in New York magazine, for example, David Denby called it "one of the most radiant and tenderly religious movies ever made." But Time's Richard Schickel suggested that Catholics "let it die in peace, shrouded in the cloud of ennui that its antidramatic structure and muddled intentions generate."
Adverse reaction to "Hail Mary" has gone beyond pickets. During its run in Philadelphia, vandals poured what Solan called a "vile-smelling chemical" on the theater's floor. A theater in Minneapolis was burglarized and the print of the film hidden in a janitor's closet. In Chicago, where the City Council passed a voluntary ban of the movie, the Facets Multimedia theater had its front door tarred, and police discovered a bomb in the theater that was later detonated safely.
Few, if any, of the protesters have actually seen "Hail Mary." The pope condemned the film as an "outrage," but had not seen it; neither had Cardinal John J. O'Connor of New York or Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, who also condemned it. Neither had any of the Chicago aldermen who voted for the voluntary ban.
Some Catholics who have seen "Hail Mary" have regarded it with greater equanimity. The Catholic jury at the Berlin Film Festival said the film "should be looked at without prejudice." Writing in the Catholic journal America, Richard Blake, a Jesuit priest, wrote, "I had to wonder if Godard were not bringing his audience through eroticism to confront the uncomfortable fact that the Incarnation is a sexual event, made possible only through God's use of a woman's sexual identity . . . The Word, in fact, was made flesh."