In contemplating Celia Rowlson-Hall’s singular debut feature Ma, it is difficult to recall anything quite like it in movie history. Sure, there have been movies about dance, movies with dance sequences in them, and movies with stylized sequences in which actors move in a balletic manner. But an entire film that plays like a feature-length dance work, one reliant on body movements, costumes, sets and music to tell a story and explore its characters, with dialogue almost entirely absent? Not even Wim Wenders’ Pina, constructed out of a series of ballets rather than a single work, can boast that claim.
Rowlson-Hall’s audacity doesn’t just lie in its form, however. The jumping-off point for Ma is Biblical in nature, with Rowlson-Hall playing a variation on the Virgin Mary. In this modern update of her spiritual journey leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ, she traverses the desert landscape of the American Southwest on her way to Las Vegas, encountering a slew of characters on the way, including a blue-collar greaser type named Daniel (Andrew Pastides) who is the film’s equivalent of Joseph. Updating the Bible is a pretty gutsy move for any artist, but blasphemy is hardly on Rowlson-Hall’s agenda. Instead, the Virgin Mary becomes something of a feminist icon in Ma. Her journey here is as much about experimenting with conventional gender norms as it is about trying to remain pure and chaste in the eyes of God.
Surrounding Ma and Daniel are characters who appear meant to represent worldly temptations: Misti (Amy Seimetz), the sexy motel cashier who wears heels and comes on to Daniel; and a whole slew of macho archetypes—a policeman, a cowboy, a priest and so on—who figure both into a rape-fantasy dream sequence early in the film, and in a more literal scene later on that leads to a more empowering outcome. Ultimately, though, much of Ma’s conflict is internal. Rowlson-Hall’s wholly physical performance covers a startlingly wide emotional range, from childlike innocence to sexually charged eroticism to judgmental anger. Only once do those internal conflicts find an external expression: when, toward the end—just before she reaches the Vegas hotel in which she gives birth to Jesus Christ—she cuts her hair, steals some of Daniel’s clothes, and taps into her androgynous side. That moment, more than any other in the film, solidifies Ma’s feminist bona fides, its fluid play with gender.
All of this comes across vividly enough in the actors’ movements, the clothes they wear, the landscapes they roam, and the sounds they hear. But though Ma plays like filmed dance theater, that’s not to imply that it’s un-cinematic—far from it. Working with cinematographer Ian Bloom, Rowlson-Hall achieves a strikingly dreamy look in which one can practically feel the combustibility of the desert sunshine, alternating between close-ups of behavior and extreme Antonioni-like wide shots to emphasize man’s grander insignificance. Though Ma derives much of its meaning from the performers and their surroundings, Bloom’s cinematography contributes to that visceral impact through his judicious shot selections and virtuosic way with natural light.
In the end, though, it’s the dancing and the overall surreal vibe that you’ll remember. In the face of such an audacious and daring experience as this, it’s perhaps churlish to harp too much about certain moments here and there that seem not to fit its allegorical framework, that seem like the filmmakers throwing something at a wall and seeing what sticks. Warts and all, Ma challenges you to sharpen your senses, simultaneously basking in visual elements that most moviegoers normally take for granted while demanding that we discern for ourselves the meaning of those elements. Thankfully, active viewership and patience will be rewarded with a mysterious and fascinating reinterpretation of the Virgin Mary, one that offers a subversive alternate ending that restores feminist agency to a figure previously defined almost entirely by her relation to Jesus Christ. Love it or loathe it, Ma is truly like nothing you’ve seen before. Good to know that cinema can still support such fresh, forward-thinking visions.
Director: Celia Rowlson-Hall
Writer: Celia Rowlson-Hall
Starring: Celia Rowlson-Hall, Andrew Pastides, Amy Seimetz, Kentucker Audley, Matt Lauria, Peter Vack
Release Date: Jan. 13, 2017
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist, and the Village Voice in addition to Paste. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.