The re-imagining of Mary Magdalene

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.

Discussion guides for Mary Magdalene

Russell Matthews works for City Bible Forum Sydney and is a film blogger 




One thought on “The re-imagining of Mary Magdalene

  1. Warren Bird

    I think this review is too kind.

    As a movie, I found Mary Magdalene to be very dull, at times turgid and in many ways downright annoying. It’s slow, very slow. Every scene is slow, the full effect is slow. I longed for it to end well before its conclusion.

    Rooney Mara plays her role well, but the director has helped by a simple device. All the women except Mary seem to wear black. She can’t but stand out as the star of the film. But that’s one of the many aspects of the movie that take it well beyond a re-telling of one woman’s story and symbolically elevating her to a unique status not justified by what is historically known of her.

    The review rightly says that it’s theologically challenging. That’s an understatement. I think it’s blatantly wrong. It represents Mary as the real Messiah, the one who stands strong while all the disciples and Jesus fall in an emotional and mental heap, the one who comforts the sobbing Judas whose backstory has been invented out of thin air for this venture, the only one who comes to the foot of the cross, the only one who saw him after his resurrection. (Which sees him sitting just as weak as ever, chuckling to himself about something, but not risen triumphantly.) There’s not rushing to the empty tomb by the disciples, Mary alone is the only one who embraces it in any way.

    I believe that the real Mary Magdalene would turn in her grave to think that ‘her story’ had been turned into one that diminishes Jesus the way this one does! Her ministry was one of support for him financially, not emotionally and spiritually!

    Some people have asked me if it’s a ‘love story’ between Mary and Jesus. It isn’t. Although Mary does have feelings for Jesus, she doesn’t do anything in the film to escalate them sexually or romantically. Not that the Jesus of this movie could have responded – he’s portrayed as a feeble mystic barely capable of having a relationship with anyone.

    One of the things we do know about Mary from the Bible is that she was one of the group of women who had independent financial wealth and used it to fund Jesus and the disciples. (Luke 8 tells us this.) She presumably did this because Jesus had healed her from a significant demon possession, which would have restored her to society after a period of ostracism. (The women who’s company she kept included someone whose husband was on king Herod’s staff – Mary had come up in the world!)

    That little piece of information has been neglected completely.

    So it’s quite deceptive of the film makers to say this finally telling Mary’s real story. It does nothing of the sort.

    If it were just all the theological and historical nonsenses in this I’d be willing to recommend people see it if it were a good film. In my view it isn’t. Instead, just let it fade into the dustbin of cinematic history where it belongs.

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