by Anton Bitel
The Last Thing Mary Saw begins with young Mary (Stefanie Scott) opening a book to a story entitled The Old Lady of Bethabara, and starting to read. The next scene is separated from this not just by the film’s title, but by time. For we see the same book, now worn and stained, in the hands of an Interrogator (Daniel Pearce) who is discussing with his Deputy (Philip Hoffman) whether Mary is a devil or not – and the juxtaposition, through editing, of these two sequences associates the act of reading itself with something illicit, at the root of the film’s supposed evil. It is December 1843, in Southold, New York, and Mary is giving testimony before these men about the disappearance of her grandmother and other calamitous events that have recently taken place at her family’s farmhouse. Mary is also now without sight, the blood still visibly oozing from either eye beneath her blindfold. There seems little doubt that Mary will be killed, but first this vulnerable, injured woman must weave a story, like the blind Homer or Scheherazade, before an all-male audience that has complete power over her fate.
Writer/director Edoardo Vitaletti’s feature is a story of repression (especially female repression), as well as of reading and storytelling itself. Mary’s Calvinist family encourages reading, even in its womenfolk – but it is an activity limited to the Bible, whose teachings are strictly observed. Yet there is another book – the one seen at the film’s opening – which has found its way secretly into the house, and has, with its subversive ideas, formed a separate, entirely covert tradition of reading down the generations. Mary’s story of the earthly desires that she shares with the maid Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman), of cruel punishments, of premeditated murder and of divine resurrection, may reflect the tragic events that have unfolded in the house, but they also seem inspired, in one way or another, by the book of tales that the two girls read together – and that the interrogator, as a devout man, may never himself read (although we certainly see his hand hovering over the tempting tome more than once).
Like the house’s servants – Eleanor and the crippled guard Theodore (P.J. Sosko) – who are severely penalised if they ever try to escape, Mary too is a cloistered prisoner of the farmhouse, having never, as a woman, been allowed to venture to the wild woods beyond. Her only escape has been into Eleanor’s arms and into the book – both offences which, if discovered, would bring grim repercussions. These characters’ subjugation on grounds of class and gender is problematised by the contradictory identity of the family’s grandmother (Judith Roberts), on the one hand formidable and frightening matriarch who maintains the family’s rigid Christian rules and regulations with an iron grip, and on the other an almost witch-like figure – at least in Mary’s seeing or telling – with strange abilities that seem unnatural. Either way, she is, against all probability in this place and time, a woman of great power, and while her precise rôle in Mary’s story remains something of a mystery, and her disappearance is never explained, there is an impression of continuity between her and Mary, miraculously surviving even death down an invisible female line.
Shooting largely in candle light, cinematographer David Kruta has created a shadow world where any kind of otherness – unorthodoxy, homosexuality, even the facial blemish of the Intruder (Rory Culkin) – is readily condemned and demonised, and where those most oppressed long for revolt and liberation. The story that Mary tells to the Interrogator is a variant on both the stories in her forbidden book, and on Kim Ki-young’s poisonous melodrama The Housemaid (1960) – which is to say that it is timeless and universal. Of course there are gaps in Mary’s narrative, and shadowy suspicions of confabulation and cover-up, but there is an underlying truth to it that, like Mary and Eleanor themselves, defies correction. For at its heart, Mary’s confession reveals a domestic and societal scenario that is unendurably, self-destructively toxic – and all the tensions between law and curiosity, between imposed restraint and furtive, fugitive pleasure, are given full expressive voice when a young woman usually silenced is allowed to tell a story that is not just her own. Elliptical and elusive, The Last Thing Mary Saw leaves viewers suspended in uncertainty – like the blind led by the blind towards an ink-stained ending that also seems a beginning, or at least a continuation. Any way you read it, though, Vitaletti’s film is an extraordinarily assured debut.