Ms. 45. 1981. Directed by Abel Ferrara. Screenplay by Nicholas St. John.
Starring Zoë Lund, Albert Sinkys, Darlene Stuto, Bogey, Helen McGara, Nike Zachmanoglou, Abel Ferrara, Editta Sherman, S. Edward Singer, & Faith Peters.
Rated R. 80 minutes.
Abel Ferrara will remain one of the more infamous American directors until the end of cinema itself. His trangressive movies cut close to the bone. Because, despite whatever subject matter he’s diving into, Ferrara always manages to get at certain core values of our humanity. More often than, he’s taking aim at life in the city, concerned with all the facets of modernity and urbanism which encroach on our lives every day.
Ms. 45 is a gritty, nasty little exploitation flick. It’s also centred on how city life is rife with dangerously gendered spaces. The protagonist stands in as symbolic of horrific situations in which many women have found themselves, faced with the male violence around any/every corner of the city. Ferrara explores the effects of that violence on women themselves, and how it changes their perspectives on life, the city, and certainly men.
Although there’s plenty of vicious violence the movie never fully descends into exploitation solely for exploitation’s sake. After the initial assault(s) on the protagonist we see her caught in a psychological headspace, trapped in the figurative night of the city. Soon she resorts to murder in order to drag herself out of that space, crawling back from the dark and into the light. Doesn’t mean there’s any typical happy endings, this is a Ferrara picture, after all.
Urban and social decay of late 1970s/early 1980s New York City is on display here. Ferrara takes us into a world of dirty streets and alleyways, which further give way to dirty, hideous acts and the people who commit them. What hits so heavily initially is the idea that, even in daytime the city’s not a safe space for women. Usually society stresses women should fear the night.
Here, daytime’s no better. Thana (Zoë Tamerlis) is attacked in an alley, held at gunpoint and raped before being left in a pile on the ground. Broad daylight does nothing to save the poor woman. Later, she returns to her apartment where she comes across a man robbing her. Once more, she’s raped. These attacks both occur in spaces meant to instil safety: daylight and home. These spaces, and the acts committed within them, shatter the myth of women’s safety in the city.
The facelessness of male violence is driven home by Ferrara at various points. The first attacker, played by Ferrara himself, wears a terrifyingly simple mask, blurring his facial features— he could be ANYBODY. Any man in the city is a potential predator, even – and at times especially – the ones who have seemingly good intentions. For instance, Thana’s boss isn’t an outwardly aggressive man, though he’s greasy, and he steps past the line of a boss because he’s infatuated with her. Over and over, the screenplay by Nicholas St. John confronts the reality of men that women face on a daily basis.
Another theme St. John plays on is the all-too-real concept of women being silenced. The most evident inclusion of this element is the fact Thana’s a mute woman. Quite literally, she is silenced. This is the epitome of the silencing of trauma, how assaulted and raped women are forced into silence, made to be quiet, have their stories invalidated and disbelieved. As so many women are, Thana is silenced to the point the only recourse left at her disposal is vigilante justice.
“… you have to try harder than a normal person.”
Alongside important themes, Ferrara imbues Ms. 45 with impressive imagery. Most viewers might pass the movie off as JUST exploitation, when it’s exploitation + SO MUCH MORE! All those themes weaving through the screenplay are accompanied by corresponding images, making the movie that much more effective.
One of the best pieces of writing from St. John is his naming of the protagonist. Thana is reminiscent of thanatos. The word goes back to Greek, but especially interesting in context of Sigmund Freud, who referred to it as the ‘death drive’ – a desire to return to an inorganic state – in opposition of his concept of eros, which is a life instinct, self preservation, the will to live. What’s interesting is Thana encompasses aspects of both eros and thanatos: she fights to live rather than letting her assaults devour her from the inside out, and she goes on an almost kamikaze mission of murder through the city.
My personal favourite piece of imagery involves the chopped up body parts Thana takes out of her apartment after she kills the man who burgled and raped her. There’s a shot where we see her using bags labelled Fiorucci— an Italian fashion label, particularly chic at the time this movie was made. Ferrara uses this as being symbolic of the city itself. Combined with the fact Thana lives and works in the Garment District, these images of fashion are representative of the modern city. They speak directly to an idea that modernity/the city boast a sense of civilisation, whereas the reality is murder, assault, rape. Body parts in a Fiorucci bag is almost too perfect, considering the general statements Ferrara is making about city living, more so seeing as how the movie’s concerned with gendered spaces. Fashion might be an elite piece of the city, but doesn’t do anything to protect women.
In an excellent progression of theme, Thana takes on a different identity as she shifts from assaulted woman to a woman of vengeance. She changes her makeup. After that she starts to wear different outfits. By the finale, Thana’s dressed up for a Halloween party, wearing a nun’s costume. She subverts the idea of a chaste, non-violent women into one of revenge and retribution, taking the relatively silent nun and turning her into a mute woman who speaks just fine with the barrel of a gun. Essentially, Thana does take back the space of night for herself, and for other women. Above all she becomes another shifting anonymous identity in the cityscape, a faceless part of the crowd— a statement about the very violence she has to use in order to reclaim the night and the city. Because the violence of the city is a faceless entity. It’s a typically male entity, too. That’s why Thana’s nun costume signifies a general subversion of patriarchy, from the church to the gun to violence.
Ms. 45 is such an important movie that some still don’t understand to this day. Generally, women understand it more. They’re used to the fear of the city, the unknown male violence lurking in all kinds of city spaces. It’s nothing new to women. For the men out there, dig into Ferrara’s movies a little deeper than seeing them as exploitation cinema. And even though they ARE exploitation movies – most of them, anyway – there’s always a prominent, intelligent theme burrowed down below the surface. As always, there’s a method to the madness of Ferrara.