Festivals

{Fantasia 2021} The Last Thing Mary Saw – Review

Fresh off its Fantasia world premiere, suggestive period horror The Last Thing Mary Saw is a long journey into the darkest night of religious fanaticism.

Set in a tight-knit community in 1843’s Southold, New York, the film by Italian director and writer Edoardo Vitaletti follows a conventional chapter structure to tell the story of those who reject conventions altogether. Borrowing from Catholicism and evocative northern European iconography, the film centers on those who don’t follow any religious precepts. 

“God creates enemies in order to perform its good,” says protagonist Mary (Stefanie Scott). This line encapsulates the exasperation of those questioning religion as a system where inclusion at all costs is purely performative, and too many are shunned for being their true selves.

Coming to Shudder next year, this film plays out in reverse, opening with a shot of the house where something sinister has just taken place. The titular character is under investigation for the suspicious death of her family’s matriarch. A blindfold covers Mary’s eyes, or rather her hollow eye sockets. The sight of blood drying like tears hints at a history of violence that has taken its inevitable toll on this quiet, well-spoken girl.

The Last Thing Mary Saw tackles intimacy and sin

Vitaletti’s feature debut relishes in its opulent cinematography and sound, speaking volumes over its stripped-down dialogue and production design. David Kruta’s camera paints this rebellious story of intimacy in the face of punishment through gorgeous candlelit shots, while Rob Daly’s sound editing lets the house breath and quiver under the weight of what can’t be spoken.

Connection is a focal point in the film, chronicling the love between Mary and her maid Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman). Theirs is a burning passion thriving in whispers and longing stares, documented by an invisible camera that never crosses over into voyeurism. Unlike Mary’s fervently religious, nosey family, too afraid of sin to see the beam in their own eye.

The Last Thing Mary Saw beautifully frames the most private moments between its two protagonists. Yet, it’s so focused on not entering the sacred space Mary and Eleanor share to give back a full sense of their relationship. But we’ve been here before. Viewers don’t need much to understand what is at play here, and what’s at stake. This is another queer, female-fronted story bound to end up in tragedy. And there surely is an element of frustration in that, but this ineluctability doesn’t lessen the pull of the film.

Social politics at play

Netflix’s Fear Street: 1666 has a similar flavor in the religious and queer themes it tackles; not so much in the atmosphere. The Last Thing Mary Saw is closer to The VVitch by Robert Eggers, its protagonists having the same magnetic features and fire in their bellies that Anya Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin has.

There’s also a social conflict lurking beneath the acceptance façade, and this inequality tarnishes the relationship between Mary and Eleanor. From opposite backgrounds, the two young women have very different views on what living unapologetically means. Mary, grown up in a privileged environment, romanticizes the idea of escaping with her loved one. Eleanor, on the other hand, knows that going on the run is just another version of living in hiding.

Eleanor and Mary aside, the film strips the other characters of a clear identity. The figures gravitating around the couple are either helpers or obstacles in their coming-of-age narrative. Mary’s little brother (Eli Rayman) is the protagonist of a graphic splinter removal scene that anticipates Mary’s eye-gouging. A guard (P.J. Sosko) helps the two women, his unfair treatment contributing to the film’s quietly political subtext.

The Intruder and The Matriarch

However, the most intriguing characters are The Intruder (Rory Culkin) and The Matriarch, played by a delightfully disturbing Judith Roberts. Their fates are linked by captivating editing choices in the second act, but it’s the stern, austere lady who is pivotal in making sense of the movie’s folklore in the final chapter.

That’s when audiences see another side to Mary. The fire within her bursts in a confrontation scene, as she speaks up against her family’s hypocrisy. There is something delicious about watching a character that has experienced so much injustice and kept quiet finally explode, a jarring contrast with the composure she has shown in the prologue.

Despite the initial interrogation scene and the structured plot, Vitaletti chooses not to spell out anything for the audience. The film trusts viewers will find their answers after the ending credits roll, not providing clear-cut explanations. It’s a “show, don’t tell” exercise weaving original elements into an infuriating tale as old as time, but it’s one that never fails to shock.