Wordless Nativity: Ma

MA_Still_17_by_IanBloom Ma
Directed by Celia Rowlson-Hall
Opens January 13 at IFC Center

Drawing on the story of the Virgin Mary’s pilgrimage to Bethlehem as a narrative point of departure, Celia Rowlson-Hall’s distinctive debut feature, Ma, takes place in roughly contemporary times but contains no verbal communication whatsoever—movement is its dominant form of expression. The gifted Rowlson-Hall—who wrote, directed, and choreographed—also stars as a woman who wanders out of the desert and into the path of a man named Daniel (Andrew Pastides), a catalogue-rugged type who happens to be driving his Oldsmobile sedan through this desolate terrain. Instead of getting into the car, Ma (as the credits call her) drapes herself over the hood, and the two proceed down the road, in this unorthodox configuration, until they reach a motel.

From there, the couple continue inching across a nostalgic version of the sun-bleached American Southwest, holing up in rented rooms and filling up at antique gas stations on their way toward some sort of celestial pageantry in Las Vegas. The symbolist road movie steers an ostensibly redemptive course, but many of the dreamlike visuals (shot by cinematographer Ian Bloom) prove disquieting to varying degrees. As what appears to be a marauding band of male strippers (post-mumblecore mainstay Kentucker Audley cameos as a cop) prepares to assault Ma, the walls of her room suddenly collapse outward and she finds herself in the middle of the twilit desert. (It’s an open question whether this in fact constitutes the holy mother’s moment of conception.) At another point, we see sand pouring out like blood from a small tear in a kitsch landscape hanging on the wall. Meanwhile, the movie’s most relatively innocent moments come as Ma and Daniel playact and pantomime together in the comfort of their own motel room.

The true strength of Ma, which premiered at Venice in 2015, has nothing to do with its vaguely outré “take” on biblical legend, much less its talk-free format; rather, it’s the images’ particular synthesis of simplicity, sadness, and surreality that most distinguishes the movie. On a couple of occasions, the camera looks on as the protagonist, oriented toward the center of the frame, removes her oversize shirt rather gingerly, as if she were in the process of shedding another layer of skin. In a few more evocative shots, Ma has descended into the sky-blue basin of a drained swimming pool, where she clings to shallow-end steps that resemble nothing so much as a wedding cake. “Who can find a virtuous woman?” asks the film’s epigraph, half a verse from Proverbs that does, in fact, offer something of a roadmap for the movie to follow. Without resorting once to words, Rowlson-Hall develops a cinematic language well suited to exploring the concept of immaculacy—and how external demands for it can weary the body indeed.