Mary Magdalene review – toothless attempt to overturn Sunday school myths | Film

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This movie, from screenwriters Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett and director Garth Davis, sets itself a bold task: to rescue Mary Magdalene from an age-old tradition of patriarchal condescension and misinterpretation. And yet it winds up embracing a solemn, softly-spoken and slow-moving Christian piety of its own.

Mary was a key apostle of Jesus, and intimate witness to some of the most important events in his life, but has been wrongly recast in popular tradition as a “fallen woman” and “prostitute”, perhaps because of a prurient need in the male religious hive-mind for a diametric opposite to the Blessed Virgin of the same name – a need to perpetuate the misogynistic ideology of madonna/whore, and simply to denigrate a woman’s importance.

This caricature of Mary Magdalene probably reached its low point in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar with Mary’s song I Don’t Know How to Love Him, with its startling lines: “He’s a man, he’s just a man, and I’ve had so many men before, in very many ways…” Too much information. This film sets out to challenge all this: Rooney Mara brings her pupil-dilated intensity to the role of Mary, Joaquin Phoenix is a wan, introspective Jesus, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Peter and Tahar Rahim is Judas.

The drama plausibly suggests that Mary was a fiercely intelligent, resourceful woman who rejected the male norms of marriage and children laid down for her, and insisted on following Jesus. This was what caused her to be (at least initially) condemned as mad or possessed: it is entirely convincing. When she takes up her new position among the apostles, the film suggests that she does indeed become a favourite pupil, permitted à deux confidences on hillsides. But all this means for Mary is doing an awful lot of enlightened gazing at Jesus, who in turn does a good deal of infinitely knowing smiles back at her, while their dialogue is muted and restrained.

The film takes us in reasonably short order through the familiar Sunday school events, like the raising of Lazarus, Palm Sunday, the expulsion of the money changers, the last supper and of course the crucifixion itself. But Mary washing Jesus’s feet with her hair has been removed and each of the big events seems weirdly low key and even anti-climactic.

For all that the film revises our view of Mary simply by placing the narrative focus more on her, its more radical specific changes are actually connected with the men who are treated very leniently. Judas’s motives for the betrayal turn out to be wrongheaded but not culpable and there are no thirty pieces of silver. Similarly, Peter’s threefold denial has been abolished. The film suggests – quite persuasively – that the peace-loving and quietist message of Christianity was finally understood by Mary, but not the macho male apostles. But the drama’s need to forgive Judas and Peter makes the story toothless. And the dreamlike vision of Mary Magdalene floating underwater is a bit of a cliche.
The performances of Mara and Phoenix are careful and respectful, though with nothing like the lightning-flash of energy and scorn that they have given to secular roles in the past. And this may be because the film needs to distance itself, a little high-mindedly, from that other vulgar Mary Magdalene tradition – the one about her actually having sex with Jesus, the idea posited in both The Last Temptation of Christ and The Da Vinci Code. It’s if the film feels the need to repudiate any suggestion of impropriety. What we’re left with is a platonic apostlemance.

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Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Mary Magdalene review – toothless attempt to overturn Sunday school myths | Film

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