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Film review: Mary Magdalene

16 March 2018

Stephen Brown reviews the latest film to focus on St Mary Magdalene


Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene in Mary Magdalene

Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene in Mary Magdalene

MARY MAGDALENE (Cert. 12A) is the latest in dozens of films giving this passionate disciple of Jesus a central role. As with many of its precursors, it doesn’t let biblical inaccuracy interfere with telling the story in its chosen way.

Thankfully here, Mary Magdalene isn’t the tart with a heart. No canonical Gospel claims this of her, and the film’s closing credits say this. Instead, this film identifies her (correctly) as a woman possessed of demons (Luke 8.2). A back story has her parents worry that this makes her unmarriageable, and an arranged exorcism is bungled.

Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, English-language version) plays her as someone who ignores the patriarchal conventions for women. Jesus is portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, who is the son of missionaries in the discredited Children of God movement. He gives the character the intensity of Johnny Cash, whom he played in Walk the Line, with touches of the vulnerability of his character Freddie Quell’s in The Master.

UPIJoaquin Phoenix as Jesus in Mary Magdalene

This new film denotes Mary of Magdala as a woman for our time: a proto-feminist. Wasn’t she always so, in a sense? It is plain from the New Testament that the female disciples of Jesus considered his teaching to be good news for oppressed womankind. For this screenplay, the writers Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett give Mary lines such as “Are we so different from men that you must teach us different things?”

It is a gauntlet thrown down to Jesus as much as to the Jewish authorities. In keeping with the Gospels, the film portrays him treating women with a respect that transgressed contemporary Hebrew attitudes; but it goes beyond the Gospels in portraying Mary Magdalene as someone who represents, in contrast with the men around her, intuitive understanding of Jesus. She probes Christ’s inner soul, eliciting a wry smile, and then: “No one [meaning men] has ever asked me how it feels before.” John Fenton’s book Finding the Way through Mark argued something similar.

The male disciples keep missing the point. The joke is on them, not that Garth Davis (director of the tear-jerking Lion) provides much to laugh about. We get spiritual torment mashed up with serenely posed close-ups of the pair discerning how beautiful the world would be if only human beings behaved. “In the silence, is there something calling? Do you have the courage to follow what you hear?” Jesus asks of Mary.

We already know the answer that the film will give. When the going gets tough, the apostles get going: only the women stand by their man; and it is to Mary Magdalene, not to his grief-stricken male followers, that the risen Lord first appears.

The film, which is often moving to watch, offers strong advocacy of the human need for a spiritual life, and one that not only Christians can assent to. Mary Magdalene’s clarion call is “I will be heard,” and she thus enthuses other women to spread the word with her. But the film never examines why, despite these early female disciples, over succeeding centuries Christian women’s voices often haven’t been.

On general release.

Discussion resources, including questions and reflections, based on Mary Magdalene are published by Damaris Media and the Mothers’ Union. A companion booklet is downloadable free of charge from www.mothersunion.org/mary-magdalene.

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