I’m not a Christian, but even I can see the need for a new film about Jesus that doesn’t have the revolting antisemitic stereotypes of Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ. When you factor in Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus, you’ve got something that I’ll be first in line for. Unfortunately, Mary Magdalene is a misstep in Phoenix’s otherwise stellar recent career choices. It tries to “update” the events we all know with a quasi-feminist lens, but despite the unique centering of the titular character, Mary Magdalene is a bland, hollow retelling of the Christian gospels.
Oddly enough given the subject matter, the movie experiences its own fall from grace; the first twenty minutes are compelling, but this doesn’t last. Mary Magdalene (an understated Rooney Mara) is a single woman who struggles with the expectations placed upon her by her family and culture. In early-AD Judea, women are possessions of men to be bought and sold through marriage. Not even allowed to venture into the synagogue without male accompaniment, Mary leads a life defined by subjugation.
“Forgiveness is a central theme…no matter how warped people’s mindsets and behavior get, director Garth Davis never lets the audience hate them.”
But she’s having none of it, refusing to go along with the arranged marriage her brother and father have set up for her. Her male family members react by dragging her from bed late at night and trying to exorcize the “demon” that possesses her, almost drowning her in the process. These early scenes are terrific, both cementing the impossible bind that Mary finds herself in and humanizing the terrible behavior of the men in her life. These aren’t “evil” men, just men whose worldview is so backward that they can’t imagine a woman who thinks for herself. Forgiveness is a central theme of Mary Magdalene, and no matter how warped people’s mindsets and behavior get, director Garth Davis never lets the audience hate them.
Unfortunately, when Mary meets Jesus and his apostles, the movie becomes much less interesting. One would think that in a dramatic retelling of the Bible, Mary might need to overcome some hesitation in her worship of Christ or struggle to reconcile her culture with her new faith in the Christian God. Nope. It takes her about five minutes to fully commit to the cause, and from then on Mary Magdalene is as dry as the sand between Joaquin’s toes. The movie ends with another hour and a half to spare. Mary’s dramatic arc is over: she has self-actualized, found her calling as a disciple of Christ. We have to sit through interminable scenes of Rooney Mara worshipfully gazing at Joaquin Phoenix Jesusing it up.
Pheonix does his best to make Jesus interesting. His Christ is haunted, weary, at times confused and hesitant. When he preaches, it’s as if God compels him to do so against his will. And yet the material never lets him explicitly doubt himself; maybe that would be too controversial. Instead of a new version of Christ, we get another greatest hits album of The Things Jesus Did And Said. The same flaccid avoidance of provocation is true of Jesus’s chemistry with Mary; here I thought I was signing up for a movie about Jesus and Mary Magdalene doing it, and instead I get all this celibate whispering and face touching. Everyone in this movie touches everyone else’s face way too much. Every conversation is like an ASMR video; it’s ridiculous.
“…here I thought I was signing up for a movie about Jesus and Mary Magdalene doing it, and instead I get all this celibate whispering and face touching.”
In between meandering monologues fit for Sunday school classes and not much else, the only dramatic thread that’s at all present in Mary Magdalene’s final hour is the conflict between Mary and Saint Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor, who like the rest of the A-list cast is doing his best to pump life into this dead Lazarus of a script). Peter is loyal to Jesus, but he is a misogynist who fears Mary’s weakening, feminizing influence. Their disagreements come to a head in the well-played final scene, which is satisfying to watch but doesn’t make up for the tedium that came before it.
My sense is that there was a vision for Mary Magdalene that got lost somewhere along the way, in editing or rewrites or whatever. It would be great to have a movie that recast Mary as a forgotten icon of female empowerment, that made a forceful case against the subjugation of women that has plagued Christian communities throughout history. Unfortunately, despite its good intentions, Mary Magdalene boils down to another story about a woman watching a man talk.
Mary Magdalene (2019) Directed by Garth Davis. Written by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett. With Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Tahar Rahim.