Director: Garth Davis
Starring: Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim, Charles Babaloa, Uri Gavriel, Twfeek Barhom, Zohar Shtrauss, Ariane Labed, Ryan Corr, Denis Menochet
There have been many films made about the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Some have been good. Others have not. Some have been insightful. Others have crumbled under the pressure of the intimidating source material. Every time we get a new retelling of Jesus story the question needs to be asked: why? What will be different about this one? What will this adaptation tell us that previous ones have not? With Garth Davis’s Mary Magdalene, by focusing on the titular character, it gives us a uniquely female perspective on a tale thats telling is almost always inherently patriarchal.
In the year 561, Pope Gregory declared that Mary of Magdala was a prostitute, conflating her character with another who appeared in the gospel, a misconception which remains to today. Mary Magdalene, written by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, seeks to reclaim her story. We meet Mary (Rooney Mara), living in her father’s home in the small lakeside town of Magdala in the year 33CE. While the women work, word is circulating about a great healer and teacher who is visiting the area, and each day the menfolk wander off to hear him speak. After shaming her family be refusing to marry Ephraim, to whom she is betrothed, Mary decides to leave Magdala and follow this teacher, Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix). While some among his disciples, particularly Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), are wary of her presence believing she will divide the community and cause people to judge them, Mary is encouraged by Jesus to understand her value and the importance of her voice in a culture which is not always interested in hearing it.
Telling the story from Mary’s perspective shifts the focus of this gospel account. Rather than simply playing the hits and dramatising the familiar events from the Biblical account Mary Magdalene uses these characters to stage other events and conversations in and around the well known story. While this will likely open the picture up to criticism from those believers uncomfortable with the notion of stepping beyond the gospel texts, particularly in the name of feminist revision, many of the film’s most interesting moments come from these deviations. Amongst a group of disciples who are presented as quite militaristic, Mary is portrayed as a compassionate and resilient woman who challenges not only us, but Jesus, to consider the place of women within his teaching. At one point, Mary surprises Jesus by responding to his query, “I’m not sure what a woman has to say counts for much here.” Upon reaching the next town he makes a point of going to the river where the women are washing the clothes to teach there.
That the film is not beholden to the same narrative beats as a Jesus film usually would be is particularly apparent in its portrayal of the Passion narrative. By staying with Mary throughout, it covers in ten minutes what The Passion of the Christ devoted an entire film to. Davis’ film is, in a way, the antidote to Gibson’s. Where Gibson’s film made a morbid spectacle of the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene is much more interested in who Jesus was as a man and a teacher prior to those events. Joaquin Phoenix, one of Hollywood’s more enigmatic figures, is an interesting piece of casting. His Jesus is simultaneously quite human and strangely ethereal. The depiction of his relationships with his disciples, with the crowds of followers, and with his family (including a sad moment in which his mother explains to Mary how “I loved him but he was never completely mine”), point to the complexity of his life, rather than just the significance of his death.
While the narrative largely focuses on the relationship between Mary and Jesus, it is Tahar Rahim’s Judas who steals the film. Traditionally, Judas has been portrayed either as a pantomime villain, a zealous freedom fighter or, in more controversial pieces, a co-conspirator with Christ, in on the plan the whole time. Mary Magdalene avoids all of these, presenting an incredibly sympathetic portrayal of this most intriguing character. This Judas is a sweet and kindly man, the first in the group to embrace Mary as one of their party. He has lost his wife and daughter, and we can see that the part of Jesus’ teaching that most excites him is the mention of the dead rising. For this Judas, the coming of the Kingdom of God means being reunited with his family. That is his primary motivation and when things start to look like they aren’t turning out like he thought, he becomes desperate.
While Mary Magdalene has a clear purpose and something to say as a Gospel movie, as a period piece it has some issues. Amidst the strikingly harsh rural landscapes, shot in the south of Italy, the actors look just a bit too glamorous. Mara and Phoenix look like movie stars. Their costumes are always clean. They don’t look like people living on the land in such a rugged environment. And at a time when the white-washing of casts is a hot topic, it is notable that while the disciples are shown to be an ethnically diverse group, both Jesus and Mary are still white.
Mary Magdalene provides a subtly different take on the familiar Passion narrative. It is unlikely to prove enough to attract viewers without a pre-existing investment in the story – it isn’t courting controversy in the way that helped make The Passion of the Christ a hit – but it should provide those who do with something to think about.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Mary Magdalene? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.