One of the intriguing entries to the San Diego Black Film Festival is Matt Dunnerstick’s The Custom Mary, a story about (re) birth, redemption, life in L.A. and the Second Coming…or more accurately, the First Cloning of Jesus.
The story centers around Mary, a young and naive Latina who frequents a church run by some very sleazy White Boys double dipped in ersatz blood of the lamb and eager to hawk their apocalyptic message to whomever they can catch. One of them is a lineal descendant of The Professor from Gilligan’s Island; a stunted introvert and mad scientist with a home made technique for DNA extraction and manipulation. Seems that the sectarians have discovered another Shroud of Turin with Christ’s DNA still attached. This speeds them along on a plot to clone Jesus, use Him as homeboy to the Cause and rule the world…or what’s left of it after Armageddon. Mary is the neo-virgin drafted to receive the none too immaculate conception of DNA administered by the scientist, surrounded by a chorus of charlatans. What verges on a scene from Hitchcock’s cutting room floor is saved by Alicia Sixtos’ utter mastery of her role as Mary. She is as sweet and dumb as they come, but with a requisite heart of gold that makes her believable as, well, the Mother of God…or something.
Of course Mary wouldn’t be complete without Joseph who 2000 years later and half a planet away from Bethlehem, is an African American mechanic with a fine talent for customizing low riders. He doesn’t even want cars to look alike, let alone people and has no truck for cloning the Son of God either. But he stands by his woman because he loves her through thick and thin and some really bizarre costume choices. James Jolly handles his role with depth and finesse and one never catches him acting, even when he grapples with the absurdity of it all while bathing baby and waiting for Mary to struggle with her inner demons.
Inner demons there are in plenty, too. When Jesus is born Black—and mute (!) He’s immediately cast out by the bad guy preachers, who turn Mary into Mary Magdalene and quickly recruit other naive Stepford moms willing to bear the holy offspring. Suddenly, it isn’t the Second Coming anymore, but a whole block party; a flock of Sons of God right in the middle of East L.A. . Raymond Chandler -or Soupy Sales–couldn’t have done it better.
The Custom Mary holds together well in spite of some gritty camera work here and there; bits and pieces of animation and pseudo ecclesiastical trappings appear with strange meaning almost as if Dunnerstick is recalling apparitions of Angels. One of those angels not only leads Mary out of the desert where she’s gone in search of a miracle, but offers a well-formed commentary on the nature of things made by the Deity and how not to confuse them with mere hydrocarbon. Her comments are a lot more on point than anything out of Leviticus and remain as timeless as the desert—and the ’63 Chevy Impala—itself.
While there’s something to offend all kinds of Christians in The Custom Mary, the film leaves the viewer with worthy questions of its own; who owns religion, anyway, and what is faith made of? The faithful in The Custom Mary are made to pay for their credence and overcome the villains with truth mixed with just enough stretch to give it the kind of power it needs to get people motivated. Truth stretched enough to motivate people has been keeping churches filled and vision narrowed for some 2000 years and The Custom Mary is a welcome expanding of vision and a modern parable worthy of your time.
81 minutes. USA 2011.