Dir. Garth Davis
Reviewed by Matt Adcock (@Cleric20)
“The world will only change as we change. I will not be silent. I will be heard.”
The enduring image of Mary Magdalene has had a tough reputation both in the Church and popular culture – thanks in no small part to Pope Gregory the Great who in the 6th Century proclaimed that she was a prostitute and a sinner. This is despite none of the four gospels saying as much. The name Magdalene is thought to come from the Aramaic word "Magdala" which means "tower" or "elevated” and now, thanks to this new screen adaptation of Christ’s life through her eyes she may finally get some wider redemption.
"Don't mess with the Messiah"
The writing team of Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett along with director Garth ‘Lion’ Davis present Mary Magdalene as an intelligent, resourceful woman, misunderstood because she refused to conform to the strict male orders in matters like who she was to be married off to. When she decides to leave her family, and follow Jesus, a huge societal ‘no-no’ at the time, some claim that she is possessed by demons. But in a key personal scene with Jesus (which she gets several of), she questions whether there is something truly amiss within her, telling him that if there is it “must have always been in me”, he simply looks at her and assures that “there are no demons here.”
Rooney ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ Mara brings Mary to life with an intensity and respect that shows her as an intimate witness to many of the biblically recorded events. Jesus (Joaquin ‘You Were Never Really Here’ Phoenix) is presented as thoughtful, just-charismatic-enough and fully human in a restrained performance, a million miles away from the Jesus Christ Superstar persona.
The plot of this Apostle-em-up certainly ticks off many of the well-worn Biblical narrative beats including Christ’s interaction with Lazarus, the money lenders in the temple and his teaching the crowds. Phoenix depicts Jesus as having moments of very human exhaustion after his miracles which shows how his disciples had practical roles in supporting him.
Speaking of disciples there are strong turns from Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter who often bumps heads with Mary and Tahar Rahim brings a fascinating motivation to his Judas who is painted in a less damning – more misguided light.
Some may baulk at the film’s somewhat sombre tone, find the leisurely pace too slow or the plot overly introspective but this Mary’s tale makes for a thought-provoking experience which is worth soaking up on the big screen.
"The original fishnet look"
Mary Magdalene is a film that empowers its female lead character and at the screening I attended some of the theologians from Kings College were there to explain the authenticity. I got the chance to ask New Testament expert Michelle Fletcher for her thoughts and she explained:
“We know women were disciples, on the road, in crowds, following Jesus. But seldom do we see this. As a New Testament scholar, I spend my time re-inscribing these women and their experiences back into the biblical text. Finally, here is a film that does the same. And refreshingly, this Mary Magdalene is not a post-feminist product for us to consume, but rather a window into another world. She allows us to experience what it would have been like to be a female follower of Jesus in a way that previous bro-fest productions have not. Stunning cinematography and subtle scripting go a long way to facilitate this. Indeed, it is such a visceral production, during which I could almost feel the water on my skin and the damp mist on the ground. And on top of this, it presents a figure who somehow manages to hold in tension the complications of feminist dialogues. That’s a rare thing in cinema, and for a Bible film? Well, it’s definitely something to see, and to celebrate.”
This is certainly Mary’s film and it is her piercing gaze that will stay with you long after the credits roll. I fully enjoyed seeing Mary restored to a position of authority as a key apostle of Jesus and an important element of the early church in her own standing.
Out of a potential 5, you have to go with a Darkmatters:
(3 - Her story has been re-told …)
Awesomeness ööö – Biblically interesting stuff
Laughs öö – Not very fun
Horror öö – Some grim bits but not too strong
Spiritual Enlightenment öööö - Gnostic thinking can still warm the soul
Alternative View - from Phil Macaulay (LST Theological Student)
Mary Magdalene has been a character of mystery and intrigue throughout the history of the Christian church. One of the group of Jesus’ women followers, she often takes precedent because of John’s Gospel and its beautiful framing of her confused yet touching discovery of Jesus’ Resurrection.
The new film brings her into the forefront of the gospel story, showing her background, perspective and involvement to Jesus’ ministry and passion. The excellence of the film comes early, where the Jewish community of Magdala is given exposure rich in detail and relationships. Within this culture that focuses on faith and family, Mary is throttled by the expectations enforced on her life because of her womanhood. At one point the question is asked what God made her to be, is she limited to the roles of wife and mother? In Mary we see the challenge and persecution that women have suffered because of religious expectation, and the pain of seeking to genuinely seek to follow a God in whose name their identity is limited to utility. The script and direction give great patience and opportunity for the audience to believe Rooney Mara’s abilities, often conveying depth with the slightest of movements and the intensity of her gaze.
However, the portrayal is not happy enough to bring Mary into a place of acceptance and equality amongst Jesus’ followers after his embrace of her faith and personhood. It goes further, with Mary becoming Jesus’ closest confidant, encourager and intended heir. The militant disciples appear cartoonishly foolish and insecure next to Mary’s natural wisdom and self-assurance, growing jealously hostile to the primacy given to her by the Lord. Only she really understands Jesus’ message and role, only she really cares for the feelings of the Messiah, only she displays the inner forgiveness that will become so fundamental to their beliefs. She is the only female follower portrayed to us, and making her character an archetype for all women in this supremacy. Why not bring her into a place of mutual respect with the disciples, why not have her alongside different women following Jesus together with diverse personalities, why feel the next to exalt her at the detriment of every other character?
Which leads to the portrayal of Jesus by Joaquin Phoenix, who seems to be inspired by his infamous interview with David Letterman just as much as the gospels. Jesus dresses poor, speaks humbly, and uses physical embrace in the healings all brings commendable authenticity and power to his performance. Yet to have Jesus repeatedly coming across as a bit of a madman not only jars, why does this seemingly all-wise Mary continue to have faith in him? There is no avoiding the biggest spoiler of the film, Jesus’ resurrection, and it does spoil so much of the good in the film just before the end. Instead of using any of one the most treasured passages in Scripture (John 20), the film gives a Bultmann-esqe re-imagining of the risen Christ. Not only is Mary the only one to witness him in risen form, the reality of his physicality is in no way assured. The disciples, upon hearing Mary’s news do not show any interest in investigating, but predictably hijack the belief into a malleable myth for their own means. This stinks of ignoring contemporary biblical scholarship, and re-enforces a believable fiction for those looking to excuse the likely historical events.
What this film does do right is the wonderful locations used, giving great character to the locations of the story and helping to believe the world that is being reflected. The first glimpse of 1st Century Jerusalem was breath-taking and perhaps worth the ticket price alone. Commendation too must be given to Tahar Rahim, who brings a unique Judas to the screen. He manages to show a complexity to the character’s faith, expectation and inner turmoil that is relatable to present day religious fundamentalists; so full of hope and passion it brings them away from the basic grounding of faith in trust.
In summary, much as the disciples hijack the gospel in the final scene, this film feels like a great message taken too far. A powerful narrative of equality, respect and love could have been shown in the new humanity Jesus is trying to bring through the amazing character of Mary. Yet we are left with a message of men’s inadequacy contrasted by Mary’s angelic infallibility. In the history of the church, leaders have been repeatedly guilty of suppressing and even abusing women in a perversion of the original fellowship women shared following Jesus. Sadly, this decent film will not help as much as it could to address these crimes by answering them with fiction and reverse sexism.