It’s not just Muslims going ballistic over a secular portraiture of their divinity. Let’s recall the 1985 picketing of Jean-Luc Godard’s Je vous salue, Marie|Hail Mary, a modern retelling of the birth of Christ that was condemned by Pope John Paul II and then by our own Bernard Cardinal Law because “it does violence to a cherished belief.” Sack Theatres of Boston, forerunner to the Loews chain, capitulated to organized protests from the Archdiocese of Boston and canceled a planned run at a downtown theater. “Banned in Boston,” Hail Mary opened instead at the Orson Welles Theatre in Cambridge, to respectable reviews from the critics (three and a half stars from the Boston Herald) and salutations from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Godard was bemused at the to-do about his film, which is getting a rare revival screening at the Harvard Film Archive this Monday, February 27. At a 1985 Berlin Film Festival press conference, he labeled earlier protests at Versailles and Strasbourg “a benediction,” praising the picketers because “they did their work as Christians, and they didn’t do it badly.” He did defend Hail Mary against attacks that it was blasphemous, saying, “It’s a real story, Mary’s story about life coming down from the sky. We’ve had lots of films about Jesus and the Bible, but none about Mary. Why? The Church should have made this film.”
Godard’s Mary is the French basketball-playing daughter of a gas-station attendant who finds herself mysteriously pregnant. She was played by 23-year-old Myriem Roussel, a tall, thin, beautiful Moroccan who had met Godard when she was 19 and went on to appear in his Passion and Prénom Carmen.” At Berlin, she sat silent at the press conference and chainsmoked while Godard pontificated. But later that day, the shy actress met with me for her first, and only, English-language interview.
She said she and Godard had planned Hail Mary for three years. “We worked with video. Godard forced me to write down a diary of my thoughts, not regular writing but from my depths. I had no religious education, so I had to study the Bible. I watched Pasolini’s film, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, and also Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Godard loves that film, and I understand why he loves it. And I had to learn basketball. Godard wanted to do a basketball scene very much.” She noted that basketball has symbolic, spiritual associations: “the moon, the stomach when you are pregnant.”
Roussel had her first unsavory taste of Hail Mary picketers in front of a theater in Strasbourg. She recalled, “There were five men, including a priest, and they hadn’t seen the movie. I said to one man, ‘I’ll give you $3 to go inside,’ but it was impossible to have a dialogue with them.”
She was adamant about her controversial nudity. “Mary is a virgin, but Mary is a woman, too. For me, the decision was to show her in 1985 as an actual contemporary person. Maybe if we’d set the film in Biblical times, it could be shocking, but not now.” She also explained why she seems so mean and insensitive to the modern-day Joseph, her Hail Mary boyfriend, refusing to have any amorous contact with him. “It’s not that Mary hates men or that she’s scared of sex. It’s only because she has been chosen for that special birth. She’s predestined to act that way.” She thought a moment about that answer, then added, “Anyway, I was like that too. When I was young, I had a boyfriend for two years. I gave him permission to hold my hand, but that was all.”