Film festivals serve a vital function in giving unknown, unheralded, and/or undistributed movies a platform to get support from critics and find an audience. But through the vetting process, they also serve an equally vital function: They generally help keep abysmal work like Madonna's directorial debut, Filth And Wisdom, from seeing the light of day. Given the Madonna name, of course, there was no doubt—or at least, less doubt—that there would be some interest, however limited, in her stupefying cinematic vision. With any other name behind it, her pseudo-philosophical ode to Kabbalah teachings would get cast into the enormous slushpile of festival rejects that only a few intrepid selection-committee members have been forced to sit through. Paying audiences aren't usually subjected to projects this amateurish.
Taking a cue from Revolver, the worst film by her husband, Guy Ritchie, Madonna bookends Filth And Wisdom with bits of philosophy aimed directly at viewers. But instead of offering epigrams from the likes of Machiavelli and Julius Caesar, she breaks the fourth wall and has her lead actor speak vaguely of dualities. Eugene Hutz brings a scummy, Vincent Gallo-like magnetism to the role of a loveable scoundrel who makes his living in leather boots, leading clients through private S&M; scenarios. His roommates are also dabbling in sin: Holly Weston is a ballerina who goes to work at a strip club, and Vicky McClure is a good-hearted pharmacist who cares about African strife, but also sneaks pills from the shelves.
The film's prevailing idea is reflected in the title: You have to muck around in filth to achieve wisdom, and they're two sides of the same coin. (How is this demonstrated? With a coin, naturally.) Madonna presents the three leads as flawed but essentially decent and redeemable, but they're bound up in a story that's meant to affirm a vague set of values. If she needs to justify the Sex book by charting her own contrived path from filth to heavenly wisdom, that's fine. But she should do it on her own time.