Movie Review: Mary Magdalene

The enigmatic woman from the New Testament is restored to prominence

Mary Magdalene  (Máří Magdaléna)
Directed by Garth Davis
With Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim

One of the more enigmatic figures in Christianity is Mary Magdalene, whose role in the late days of Jesus’ life has led to much speculation.

The new film Mary Magdalene takes a very stripped-down approach to the story, telling it in a neorealist style highly reminiscent of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s heartfelt 1964 film The Gospel According to St. Matthew.

If the name Mary Magdalene rings a bell, she was at the heart of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, and a key part of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

While the commonly accepted vision of Mary Magdalene (played by Rooney Mara) is that she was a reformed prostitute, the filmmakers — director Garth Davis and writers Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett — depict her as a midwife who tries to think for herself, rather than let various men decide what is best for her.

In an early scene, Mary Magdalene’s relatives bring her to an exorcism to cast out the demons that make her want to go against the patriarchal ways.

After the first exorcism fails, her family brings in a cult leader who has been wandering around the area talking about a revolution while he heals the sick — Jesus of Nazareth (Joaquin Phoenix). He talks to her like she was equal, and she becomes interested in following the nomadic cult.

Mary Magdalene, though, is not readily accepted by the male followers. Peter, in particular, thinks women bring trouble. Judas is a little friendlier. The other disciples aren’t developed as much, as Mary never gets to know them too well.

Jesus shows her a bit of favor, though. He uses her help to try to reach out to women, who could, in turn, spread the message to their husbands and sons.

While there are a few miracles in the film, there is little in the way of CGI. Jesus heals without thunderbolts or a cracking sky. No see-through angels appear, and no booming voice is heard from the sky.

The miracles take a toll, leaving Jesus drained as if he is sharing some of his own life force with each healed person.

Joaquin Phoenix, who in real life was raised in a cult in South America, plays Jesus as a charismatic figure who is getting tired from all the wandering. His sermons are intimate affairs, with him talking in a low and strained voice about making the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth by letting go of the anger and hatred that eats away the soul. His sermons have a pleading quality, begging people to see how simple his message really is.

He often drifts into trances, and sits alone contemplating what to do next.

As the small band moves from town to town, viewer can see how tiny the origins of Christianity were. Some people listen, but not many people are willing to actually physically follow.

Phoenix recently played an over-the-top army veteran with PTSD who saves trafficked girls in the film You Were Never Really Here. His role this time is completely different, showing he is not a one-note actor.

Rooney Mara — who starred in the US version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — also gives a quiet but powerful performance, continuing to follow the wandering band despite the indifference and hostility of the other disciples. She is the one who listens to the actual message, seeing that Jesus is not calling for a physical rebellion with actual weapons against Rome.

Much of the familiar parts of the tale of Jesus’ final days is left out, as Mary didn’t witness it. There is one clumsy part in the script, with Mary knocked unconscious and missing some key moments. This plays as a bit of a cop-out on the part of the filmmakers.

The story also gives a new spin to Judas’ motivation.

The costumes and locations enhance the feeling of authenticity, with most people wearing rough handmade cloth. The setting is a semi-desert scrub land, for the most part, with barren stone shacks.

A common criticism of Bible dramas is too many blond haired and blue eyed people. Mary Magdalene has a pretty diverse cast that fits the region where the story takes place.

As a religious drama, Mary Magdalene succeeds in showing an often told tale in a new perspective. It offers a vision of how events might have unfolded in a more natural context, without a lot of supernatural events thrown in.

It also leaves a lot open to the viewer’s own interpretation, as one can, in the end, see the characters as just one of many bands of wandering mystics, going from town to town and essentially begging, or see it as an authentic tale of divinity.

The film’s project is clearly to place the historical Mary Magdalene back where she belongs as one of the main figures of the early days of the new religion, rather than a footnote.

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