Jean-Luc Godard's "Hail Mary" is, quite simply, a film unlike any other, in the adventurousness of its style and the profundity of its thought, both esthetic and religious. Among films machined by marketing geniuses for Friday night dates, it stands out as a kind of pure cinema; and in a world where religion has often become the refuge of seamy politicians, international terrorists, video hucksters and other scoundrels, it's a redemption.
At its most basic level, the film is a contemporary retelling of the Virgin Birth. Young Mary (Myriem Roussel), an ordinary girl who plays basketball and works in her father's gas station, discovers that she is pregnant, though she sleeps with no one; her boyfriend, Joseph (Thierry Rode), a taxi driver who broods behind dark glasses, can't comprehend it -- he hounds her with his jealousy. When he gets out of control, Gabriel (Philippe Lacoste), a thug of an angel accompanied by an adorable little girl (Manon Anderson) slaps him into line. Ultimately, Mary gives birth to Jesus (Malachi Jara Kohan).
To summarize a Godard film in this way is, of course, to misrepresent it -- he has long eschewed a conventional, linear narrative. Godard began as a critic (for the influential journal Cahiers du Cine'ma) and contends that he's still doing criticism, only in a different medium; from one angle, his work, taken as a whole, might be looked at as an extended cinematic essay on the problem of the narrative in film.
"Hail Mary" continues and deepens that work. Scenes of dialogue are intercut with and interrupted by photography of plants, animals, water and sunsets, shots of thundering trains and jet airplanes, a title that reads "en ce temps la" ("at that time") and a recurrent image of the moon. The sound track, the dialogue and amplified street noise, is sometimes matched to what you see on the screen, and sometimes stands apart from it; it's fractured by lovely fragments of Bach and Dvorak that are often broken in midflight.
By conventional standards, the movie is chaotic, a series of disjoined images, a huggermugger of sound. But "Hail Mary" is all of a piece, a succession of sounds and images that obey their own syntax, that connect not externally but internally, according to a purely cinematic logic. And as in his version of the Carmen story, "First Name: Carmen," Godard has "solved" the problem of the narrative by alluding to a familiar tale. The story doesn't have to be slavishly followed on the screen -- it precedes the film in the audience's mind.
"Hail Mary" is, in every way, the companion piece to "First Name: Carmen" -- if that movie was Godard's journey into the profane, "Hail Mary" is his meditation on the sacred. Where "Carmen" was vivid and energetic, "Hail Mary" has a serene beauty, and what's astonishing is how Godard has been able to strip away all the complications of his style in achieving this. The movie has no tricks or gimmicks. It's the soul of simplicity, shot completely with a motionless camera reminiscent of Robert Bresson, in natural light (and natural shadow), from delicate angles.
Life, says Godard, is beautiful just as it is; beauty is sacred, and the sacred is beautiful. While the movie has its moments of humor (the child Jesus says, "I am He who is," and Joseph orders him to quit clowning and get in the car), the overall tone is remarkably serious, with none of the characteristic perversity that was so evident in Godard's Marxist period (which he now says was an elaborate joke).
What Godard has done is take the sacred out of books and put it back in life, an achievement that is fundamentally religious. The movie has been attacked as blasphemous because it doesn't subscribe to ideas of God that come from Renaissance painting and the movies of Cecil B. De Mille -- it doesn't, in other words, worship false gods and graven images. What it does, instead, is to take the Incarnation seriously enough to consider it an actual, if mysterious, historical event, and to make it real -- for a putative modernist like Godard, an almost staggering act of faith.
The beauty of the Incarnation, a beauty that was understood by medieval artists but was then lost, is the way it unites Eros with eternity, and makes transcendence possible in the real world. In "Hail Mary," Godard has rediscovered that; and at the end, you feel like his Mary when she says, "I'll know the true smile of the soul, not from outside, but from inside, like a pain that's always deserved."
Hail Mary, opening today at the Biograph for a one-week run, is unrated but contains nudity, profanity and sexual themes.