Movie review: 'Mary Magdalene' seeks to redefine distaff disciple

Fred Hawson

Posted at Mar 28 2018 03:31 PM

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Mary Magdalene is one of the more mysterious characters in the New Testament. Who was she really? As a child, I remembered her being called a sinner (maybe an adulterer or a prostitute) who repented and followed Jesus. In 2003, Dan Brown's novel "The Da Vinci Code" became very controversial because it propagated the story of Mary Magdalene being the "Sacred Feminine," with whom Jesus actually had a bloodline (the Merovingian dynasty of France). I was nervous when I saw that there was new film out about her, nervous about how they were going to portray her.

Mary of Magdala was a very calm and capable woman, with her own independent mind. When she refused to marry a certain neighbor, even her family thought she was possessed by evil spirits. Eventually, she was entranced by the teachings of then popular rabbi Jesus. She decided to leave her family to become one of His apostles during His travelling ministry, all the way to His Resurrection.

Rooney Mara very well-portrayed the strong will and free spirit of this new Mary Magdalene this film wanted to reintroduce and redefine to the public. Her Mary was not afraid to speak her mind and even debate with the apostles, notably Peter. Despite this, one still feels that Mara was not given too much to do or pushed to do more as the title character. 

On the other hand, Joaquin Phoenix seemed to be miscast as Jesus, since he looked very much older than 33 (Phoenix is now 43 years old, and looked more grizzled than his actual age.) That age issue aside though, he played an unsmiling, miserable Jesus, not really a charismatic portrayal that should be expected of a Christ.

Aside from her family backstory, the writers Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett also had to whip up a couple of special "feminist" circumstances (not seen anywhere in the Gospels) where Mary's presence as a woman apostle would play a key role. They also worked in a scene where Mary Magdalene spoke with Mother Mary (played by Irit Sheleg). They tweaked the story of the miraculous raising Lazarus from the dead, as well as how the Lord's Prayer was taught. 

The script never really suggested there was something more intimate between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Nothing as scandalous as "The Last Temptation of Christ" (Scorsese, 1988) for sure. However, those lingering gazes and facial touching, while not overtly romantic, were still rather uncomfortable to watch at first. It is probably the same as how Jesus would be close to Peter or the other male apostles, but Mary being a female apostle gave an unfamiliar vibe. 

Starting from the scene when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the focus of the film shifted to Him -- getting angry at the Temple, His Last Supper, His arrest in the Garden, His death of the Cross -- as Mary Magdalene was relegated only as a silent witness on the side. People wanting to learn more about Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection would be disappointed. There would only be some informative text flashed about her status in the Catholic Church before the closing credits.

Two of the apostles also take up some of Mary's screen time. Peter was portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor (Oscar nominee for "12 Years a Slave," 2013) to be not only clueless of Jesus' true philosophy, but also very insecure and even envious of the attention Jesus gave Mary. Judas was played with so much youthful charm and idealism by Tahar Rahim (lead actor from "A Prophet," 2009), such that we can actually sympathize with his disillusion and consequent betrayal of his Master. 

This is only Australian director Garth Davis' second feature film after his directorial debut "Lion" got nominated for 6 Oscars including Best Picture in 2016. The serene musical score was the last opus of the late Swedish composer Johann Johannson. 

I was actually grateful to see another film tackle the story of Jesus Christ's passion and death in a more restrained manner, after that extremely violent version Mel Gibson had in "The Passion of the Christ" (2004). However, these do not entirely soften the disappointment that the focus on Mary Magdalene was not as intensive as I was hoping for. 7/10

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."