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Film review: I Am Mary, Faith, and This Gun for Hire (1942)

31 December 2020

Stephen Brown reviews biblical, documentary, and film-noir releases

Natasha Hicks

Colette Dalal Tchantcho and Raksha Hoost in I Am Mary

Colette Dalal Tchantcho and Raksha Hoost in I Am Mary

I AM MARY (No BBFC certificate) is the third film in Four8’s series of shorts. We have already had I Am Joseph and I Am Pilate. The aim is to reintroduce biblical characters in contemporary settings relevant to viewers. The earlier films have set a high standard, and, although this new one restricts itself to only one aspect of the Blessed Virgin’s life, it doesn’t disappoint.

President Herod in some unnamed dictatorship has decreed that all male babies are to be slaughtered. At least one mother and child escape, thanks to the loving sacrifices that another parent makes. Many years later, a psychotherapist (Colette Dalal Tchantcho) welcomes a client (Raksha Hoost) into her home. As the story unfolds, we enter into the woman’s unresolved grief, combined with a capacity to offer forgiveness — and the need for a son destined for the falling and rising of many in a troubled world.

This becomes an emotionally costly story of hope. We are confronted with the dilemma of assessing how paramount safety is in our lives in proportion to doing what is right. The biblical parallels aren’t difficult to detect. What if the Holy Family had decided to settle permanently in Egypt, free from danger?

Natasha HicksA still from I Am Mary

Interestingly, Kay Jegede, who wrote the screenplay, gave the client the name of Hannah. The Magnificat that Mary sings to her cousin Elizabeth is thought to have remarkable affinity with the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel. Just as at the annunciation, Mary had been visited by a heavenly messenger, what if she needed a latter-day Hannah to reconcile her to the hopes and fears for her child? What if these values conflict?

I Am Mary is directed by Sheila Nortley. In a short space of time, she skillfully explores themes of guilt, atonement, and, ultimately, redemption.

Available on Four8’s Official YouTube Channel


FROM more than 80 hours of footage, Valentina Pedicini’s Faith (no BBFC certification) chronicles the lives of the Warriors of Light. This Italian sect combines Shaolin kung-fu with Catholicism, Zen-like meditations over a singing bowl with recitations of the 23rd Psalm. Crucifixes adorn the walls alongside pictures of Madonna and Christ-child. Meanwhile, monks of both sexes frenetically dance to E Nominee’s trance-inducing techno tracks or knock the living daylights out of punchbags, if not one another.

A still from Faith

It’s all part of the daily regime of more than a dozen warriors desiring to keep themselves unspotted from the world. This state of undefilement has been cultivated for the past two decades by The Master, the monastery’s founder. Although it is an enclosed order, there is evidence of tentative links with the outside world. One couple visit the wife’s parents after a long absence. Strict conditions are attached to their meeting: “I can’t touch anything you’ve touched with your hands,” she tells her mother. Back at the monastery, there is unmistakable sadness at having to remain separated from kith and kin. Watching this while a pandemic rages chimes in with our own current experiences of social distancing.

One of the men, Gabriele, is summoned to a meeting of the community. He’s asked to respond to allegations of sexually harassing a female member. The Master orders him to write a confession, which we see Gabriele attempt periodically before fleeing the monastery. It is hardly a place of tranquillity. As someone says, “We can’t seem to live peacefully.” The enlightenment that the residents seek resembles a mirage.

It is not at all clear whom these warriors are in training to fight. Is the intention to take on the world at some point? More probably, on this showing, the battle is within, a pummelling of their own bodies into submission lest, as St Paul puts it, they should find themselves rejected. It becomes apparent that The Master’s power-play tactics ensure constant discomfort among the acolytes. By verbal abuse and bullying, he maintains control, supervising punishing exercise schedules and arbitrarily convening nocturnal encounter-group meetings. He is definitely lord of all, sporting a Zeus T-shirt to prove it.

Pedicini waits patiently for subjects to reveal their feelings. Nobody is directly interviewed. Her director of photography, Bastian Esser, records intimate moments — lovemaking, prayer, showering, etc. — in accordance with The Master’s ban on secrets, “unlike other fishy sects”. There’s an early indication that the director, despite her claims, is far from a neutral observer. The decision to film in monochrome was taken so as to highlight the strong duality of characters who divide life into two. White represents purity and the Warriors’ perception of themselves, while black embodies the darker, negative outer world. Faces, by being sharply displayed as a mixture of illumination and shadow, betray their inner conflicts.

Faith is prefaced by words of the novelist Dino Buzzati: “Here everything spoke of renunciation, but for whom, to what mysterious end?” The answer to that would require Pedicini to produce a sequel. She, alas, died last month, aged 42.

Online at MUBI


GRAHAM GREENE’s novel A Gun for Sale was first made into a film, relocated to California during the Second World War, under the title This Gun for Hire (Cert. PG). Eureka Classics have now issued a splendid 4K remastering on Blu-ray plus various extras. One of the earliest and classiest examples of what we now call film noir, it retains Greene’s preocupation with the soul’s battle between good and evil.

Alan Ladd as Philip Raven in This Gun for Hire

In this case, it is Alan Ladd’s hitman, Philip Raven, who strangely attracts our sympathy. He has summarily d-spatched a blackmailer and his glamorous “secretary”. But then his employer, Willard Gates (Laird Gregar), double-crosses him. This leads to a connection with Ellen (Veronica Lake minus her usual peekaboo hairstyle), who, thanks to the production’s special-effects department, performs impossible conjuring tricks at Gates’s nightclub. She is assigned to infiltrate the organisation her boss fronts, the government suspecting that it is selling warfare secrets to the Japanese. She cannot even share this mission with her fiancé, Michael (Robert Preston), a detective who happens to be on the trail of Raven.

This is the first (and arguably the best) of several films in which Ladd and Lake team up. On the run, with each needing the other to achieve their goals, they offer an investigation into whether what constitutes salvation could equally be construed as damnable.

Raven’s past hurts include one that he literally wears on his sleeve. In the book, it’s a hare lip. Here, it’s the scar left on his wrist, broken by a vindictive aunt who raised him. All his subsequent killings result from avenging a tormented childhood of maltreatment. He tells Ellen that he cannot stop the nightmare. “There is something you can do,” she says. “Don’t kill any more”. His suffering appears unending, and the resulting evil feels ingrained into the universe that the characters inhabit. Acknowledging, at Ellen’s prompting, that he’s just killing his aunt all over again doesn’t necessarily bring redemption.

The unremitting nature of evil is only mediated by divine grace appearing in unlikely forms. Ellen’s starting point may be sheer survival tactics, faced as she is with Raven’s gun in her back. Don’t try soft-soaping me, he tells her, but they can see that it’s in their mutual self-interest to look after each other.

It has been said that Ladd’s character is a forerunner for Pinkie Brown in Greene’s later novel Brighton Rock, but Raven is a great deal subtler a character, at least as played here. There are moments of tenderness; and he ultimately performs a good deed for the wrong reason. Both Raven and Ellen represent the contradictory elements in our twisted natures. The film remains close to Greene’s outlook. It is through cracks in our façades that flashes of divine light shine through.

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