Dir: Abel Ferrara.It-Fr-US. 2005. 83mins.

Watching Abel Ferrara's Maryis like watching an odd religious ritual taking place in a language we onlyhalf understand. We recognise the power of the ceremony, and the commitment ofthose involved - but as for what the hell is going on, and what it all means,and whether there's someone up there - these are mysteries that areinaccessible to us.

Themaverick US director's most overtly spiritual film to date, though, is oddlycompelling once you learn to let it work on an intuitive level, withoutdemanding too much of the plot or searching for dramatic resolution.

Thefilm's slippery argument about Mary Magdalene bounces polemically off both MelGibson's The Passion Of The Christ and Dan Brown's best-selling novel TheDa Vinci Code, and the controversy it will inevitably generate will helpthe film to extend its audience beyond the usual Ferrara faithful.

Butthis is still a resolutely arthouse product, which will probably do better inEurope (where the film's budget was imaginatively cobbled together) than in theStates. Mary plays Toronto after its competition slot at Venice.

Likethe director's little-remembered Madonna workout Snake Eyes, Marybegins as a film within a film. An arrogant Brat Pack director, Tony Childress(Matthew Modine) has just finished shooting This Is My Blood, a Jesusbiopic in which he himself plays the Messiah.

Scenesfrom the film - sun-soaked, shot with a roving handheld camera - are cut inwith a post-wrap scene in which Childress goes looking for his lead actress,Marie Palesi (Juliette Binoche), who played Mary Magdalene in the film.

ButPalesi, once found, refuses to leave, or come out of character: illuminated byMary, locked into her role, she takes off for Jerusalem. The action then shiftsforward a year to New York, where TV talkshow host Ted Younger (ForestWhitaker) is helming a prime-time special on the life of Christ.

Bonafide guests (French Bible scholar Jean-Yves Leloup, Italian rabbi Amos Luzzato,and others) give their views on such subjects as the Jewish view of Christ andthe way history, and the official Church, have vilified Mary Magdalene anddemoted her from "Jesus' number one disciple" to a prostitute hanger-on.

Ferrara'scase that Mary and Peter were engaged in a power struggle for control of thedisciples, and that Mary was present at the Last Supper, is based on theapocryphal Gospels of Mary Magdalene, Peter and Philip, which were discoveredin Egypt in 1945, and which underpin Dan Brown's best-selling hokum.

Interviewedon Younger's programme, director Childress - whose film is about to premiere inNew York - quips that his reason for making a life of Christ was "because thatGibson film made like a billion dollars".

Againstthe background of a garish, nocturnal, dehumanised New York, Younger then goeson his own roller-coaster journey from sin through guilt to redemption, helpedby some mystic mobile phone conversations with a blissed-out Binoche, who isfilmed wandering through the old town of Jerusalem like a holy hippy.

TVnews images of violence in the Middle East flicker behind the characters inseveral scenes, providing a disturbing bassline that is echoed by FrancisKuipers' moody, jangly guitar score.

Ifall this sounds confusing, it is. There is little closure of the dramatic arcsset up at the beginning, except in the case of the Ted Younger plot; and thereare more questions than answers among the film's theological musings. One feelsthat Ferrara is using this film to work through a very personal Catholic tripthat began, in more violent form, in The Bad Lieutenant.

It'sfascinating to watch the director struggle with his demons; but few of us willcome away from the film feeling that they are also our demons.

De Nigris Productions
Central Film

Wild Bunch

Fernando Sulichin
Roberto De Nigris
Chris Wyatt
Fernando Sulichcin

Simone Lageoles
Abel Ferrara
Mario Isabella

Stefano Falivene

Frank DeCurtis

Fabio Nunziata
Langdon F Page

Francis Kuipers

Juliette Binoche
Forest Whitaker
Matthew Modine
Heather Graham
Marion Cotillard
Stefania Rocca