In abstract art, form takes the foreground, departing from traditional visual cues that are referential. Instead, artists seek in abstraction to convey ideas that are non-referential and translate to the viewer as part of a creative process that is at once disruptive with traditional modes of communication and also reiterative as it creates a new language that adds a layer of meaning. In MA, there is an abstraction that enlarges the potential use of the moving image transcending the boundaries of traditional filmmaking. Through MA, we enter the world of Mother Mary’s pilgrimage from a perspective that is innovative and unique to the point of abstraction; these are not images that let you think of what you’ve seen before but that force viewers to think about this well-known story anew.
MA is a valiant effort by Celia Rowlson-Hall, who not only choreographed the film but carries it forward onscreen with an expressive performance lacking words but transmitting emotion in the most visceral way. Rowlson-Hall’s deep eyes are haunting and piercing, as if the camera that stands between her performance and us did not exist. She wills her entire self through the screen.
When Rowlson-Hall first appears onscreen, it’s almost as if this ghostly woman that came from the middle of the desert does not belong anywhere. Wearing a T-shirt and burgundy cowboy boots, with a towel on her head, she channels an exhaustion and confusion that only add to the mystery. The slowly evolving quality of the film demands patience from the audience. It is a religious story like you’ve never seen, but one that is packed with raw honesty. She then encounters a man who drives her to her next destination. Her harrowing journey comes with all the pitfalls of contemporary life, yet she is still able to save her son.
Rowlson-Hall’s body is neither sexualized nor minimized; it is an expressive vehicle. A body that, just like in the religious allegory it refers to, is a vessel. This is where Rowlson-Hall excels, the emotions transmitted here are accentuated by the music, but Rowlson-Hall is driving them with resoluteness. The rest of the cast, photogenic and expressive, compliment rather than take away from this excellent performance. There is a group of men dressed as various prototypical male characters, including a cowboy, a businessman and an athlete. There is a woman (Amy Seimetz) who has succumbed to femininity and the would-be man to become the head of household. Then, there is the cinematography by Ian Bloom, which is almost another character, as the story truly relies on the expansive shots of natural landscapes and the tight, claustrophobic shots of indoor sets.
In this telling of the archetypal story, the characters are more human than divine. Virtue is not a given and characters struggle with violence, sexuality, jealousy and infidelity. It is in this human experience that MA depicts the troublesome experience of being alive and seeking virtue. With shots that are mostly static, the camera allows the actors to do all the work and in Rowlson-Hall’s case we get a real and compelling delivery of what it’s like for women especially. It is her character, Mary that is the most developed, while others serve as archetypical stand-ins for societal encroachment on women, as Mary struggles not only to save her son but also to come to terms with her gender identity and the pervasive violence against women at every turn. You may find yourself challenged or confused by MA, but it is well worth the experience of watching and letting it stretch your already conceived notions of religion, gender and virtue.
MA runs 82 minutes, there is no language, as it is a silent film and it is not rated. It debuted at the Venice International Film Festival and will have a South Florida premiere at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Thursday, Oct. 13, for one night only, and will feature Q&A with director and star Celia Rowlson-Hall. For information about nationwide screenings, please click this link. A screener link was provided by Memory Studios for the purposes of this review.