Review: Mary Magdalene
(M) Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ariane Labed
With the recent announcement of Mel Gibson’s follow up to The Passion of the Christ, there seems to be a resurgence of depicting New Testament characters in film. Paul, The Apostle of Christ, will hit theatres around Easter alongside the most intriguing venture for a big studio, Mary Magdalene. Directed by Academy-Award nominee Garth Davis (Lion) and cast with award-winning actors like Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix in the lead roles, Mary Magdalene is worth the trip to the cinema. This is especially because the lead character, Mary is recognisable yet there is little mention of who she is within the biblical accounts. This viewpoint has the potential to be an unmitigated disaster or a fascinating study of this woman’s perspective on the details surrounding Jesus.
In the film, Mary (Mara) is a young woman who lives in a world of spiritual and social conflict in her fishing village. In her search for the answers to life, she becomes a follower of a radical new teacher named Jesus of Nazareth (Phoenix). Jesus is a man who speaks with authority against the religious leaders of his day and provides hope for all who believe in his words. As Jesus’ fame and the opposition against his teachings grow, Mary and the others must decide how far they are willing to go to associate with these new views of the world of God. Upon arriving in Jerusalem, the extreme responses of the people and the religious leaders confront the reality of this movement and Mary’s faith.
Unlike many of the past Christian films that have included Mary Magdalene, this story contains more of a nuanced depiction of the female disciple and the Messiah. It needs to be said that this is not a Christian film, but an arthouse film that centres on some of the most important figures in Christian history. Christians who attend a screening of Davis’ film may experience a bit of discomfort. The actual historical records do not have enough content to fill a full-length film, but that does not mean that Mary’s story should not be told. The discomfort for those who know her story should be forced to go back and study what is factual and what is artistic license.
Opposed to a straightforward depiction of this look into history, Davis takes this narrative through a creative lens that tells as much about the era and geographic elements as the script. These visual elements complement the scripting that depicts a different perspective of the historical accounts without sacrificing the significance of the message. The writers deliver a ‘man of many sorrows’ messiah and one who provided ground-breaking treatment of women. The interactions between Mary and the key players in this story are fictional but do prove that a multitude of conversations did occur that may not have been documented.
Theologians will pick apart the storyline and some may have an issue with the casting choices of the different individuals who follow Jesus. In this analysis, the hope would be that they will see the value of incorporating the most significant event in history into a modern construct.
Viewers should not expect to gain every element of the Biblical story from this film, but be challenged to explore it more in-depth by engaging with the historical documents that are readily available to them. The key element for Christians to consider from this film is to get the conversation started on the subject of Jesus and Mary.
Many may claim that this a familiar historical character but may find that they may not know as much as they thought and will be pleasantly surprised by the reintroduction.