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A reverent, feminist new movie tries to give Mary Magdalene her due

Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix star in a reenvisioned version of the traditional Jesus narrative.

Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara star in Mary Magdalene.
Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara star in Mary Magdalene.
IFC Films

I don’t mean this as a slight in the least, but it’s true: Most Jesus movies are almost exclusively about a group of men. The ones that strive for veracity focus on Jesus and his disciples, an all-male pack. Women are frequently reduced secondary characters, or in some cases pushed off to the side entirely. They’re figures that need healing or appear in a crowd, but they’re not a big part of the story.

Yet Jesus’s mother Mary was a major figure of veneration in the early church. And the Bible makes it clear that women were among those traveling with Jesus — perhaps chief among them Mary Magdalene, a woman whom Jesus clearly loved, so much so that in John’s Gospel, she’s named as the first person he appeared to after his resurrection.

Jesus’s mother Mary, given her elevated state in the text and in some Christian traditions, has been the subject of a number of films, including the 1999 TV movie Mary, Mother of God (starring Christian Bale as Jesus) and the 2015 film Full of Grace, which depicted Mary contemplating her faith in her son as she nears the end of her life.

Mary Magdalene has shown up in popular culture, too — but often mischaracterized as a temptress, or as Jesus’s lover. Often, she’s a foil for the purity of the Virgin Mary. She’s a woman who used to be a prostitute and is now a saint. Her story is a way to show the power of being near Jesus.

But in Mary Magdalene, directed by Garth Davis (Lion) and written by Helen Edmundson (Thérèse Raquin) and Philippa Goslett (How to Talk to Girls at Parties), the story’s a bit different. It may even be more closely aligned with the text and early Christian tradition too. Starring Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix, the film has some of the same problems as many movies about Jesus’s ministry. But it’s still an interesting addition to the canon because of its goal: to not just tell a story primarily about Mary Magdalene but also elevate the role of women in the early Christian Church.

Mary Magdalene’s role and identity has changed throughout Christian history

Mary Magdalene (likely so named because she came from a fishing village called Magdala) has been a source of interest and contention for centuries. In some old texts, such as the Gnostic Gospels, her close relationship with Jesus is a source of tension with other disciples. By the middle ages, she’d been conflated with another Mary (there are a lot of Marys in the gospels), the “sinful woman” or prostitute named in Luke who washed Jesus’s feet with perfume and her hair. And so she was, for a long stretch of Christian history, viewed with some suspicion by many.

Eventually, she was restored by the Catholic Church to her rightful identity as a disciple of Jesus. She’s now considered a saint in many Christian traditions, and in 2016, the Vatican officially raised her celebration day to the level of a feast day (a much bigger deal).

Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene.
Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene.
IFC Films

But even though the church no longer considers her to have been a former prostitute, that perception has continued in popular culture, with the idea that Mary was the wife of Jesus or had a sexual relationship with him showing up repeatedly.

For instance, in Martin Scorsese’s controversial 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ (based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s 1955 novel), Satan tempts Jesus on the cross with a vision of his life, had he married Mary Magdalene. In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (you may remember its live TV revival last year), Jesus and Mary don’t have a romantic relationship, but Mary is portrayed as a former prostitute, and the song “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” which she sings about Jesus, could be read as a confession of unrequited romantic love and desire.

None of that is here in 2019’s Mary Magdalene. Instead, Mary and Jesus’s close relationship is portrayed almost as a symbiosis, something they both need to survive and to carry out God’s will on earth. (That Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix are a couple in real life does admittedly complicate the matter, so it’s best to put that offscreen context aside.)

Before she meets Jesus, Mary lives with her father and several sisters in Magdala, where the women spend their days tending to fishing nets and the household. She has a knack for midwifery and prays fervently in the synagogue, but she feels as if she doesn’t belong.

That feeling comes to a head when she flees a betrothal to a kind widower, for reasons she doesn’t entirely understand, and her father and other men in the village deem her to be possessed by demons. Despondent, unwilling to submit to her fate, she lies in a state of depression until an itinerant preacher she’s heard of comes by. It’s Jesus, of course. He tells her that there are no demons in her, and that her deep desire to know God is a good thing.

He tells her, in essence, that she is not wrong for how she feels. Her feelings are valid.

Rooney Mara in Mary Magdalene.
Rooney Mara in Mary Magdalene.
IFC Films

The next day, Mary sees Jesus preaching nearby and joins the crowd — and soon finds herself caught up in the tumult that erupts when Jesus begins healing people of their diseases. She knows that she must follow him, even if she can’t exactly name the reasons why.

So the next morning, she leaves her family and joins his band of disciples, and they leave town.

Though the men are worried about what people will think of them — a band of 13 men, traveling with one woman — Mary is steely and determined and devoted to their work, undaunted by their disapproval of her. What develops is a close relationship between Mary and Jesus, who is often exhausted by his work and worried about the dark path he sees in front of him.

Meanwhile, the disciples — especially Judas (Tahar Rahim) and Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) — seem, at times, to be more interested in how Jesus can serve their ideas of him rather than in following him. Living in Judea in times of increasing unrest against the Romans occupying their land, they dream of being liberated by Jesus, their Messiah. They are willing to brush past the sick and dying to pursue that idea.

But Jesus has a different notion of the kingdom of heaven, one more to do with love and service to one another — something Mary alone seems to instinctively understand. That doesn’t endear her to the disciples. But it may help shape the future of the church.

Mary Magdalene’s take on the Gospels is quietly subversive

Mary Magdalene takes a gently feminist perspective on the early days of the Jewish sect that would eventually become Christianity. It’s at its best when Mary’s presence challenges the men to see past their ambitions and care for the “least of these,” the people who couldn’t be as useful to their cause but were central to Jesus’s mission.

And in this, taking some imaginative license, Mary’s role is elevated. In one scene, Jesus and his followers enter a city, and the disciples are surprised when they realize he’s heading to preach not to the men but to the women of the town. When Jesus arrives, though, he’s briefly unsure of what to say, and it’s finally Mary he turns to for advice.

In fact, Mary gives Jesus lots of advice throughout the film and tells him she’ll be by his side, even into his death. (According to the Gospels, she was present at his crucifixion.) Later, she is the one to deliver big news to the disciples, while they start to make moves to push her out of the narrative.

Joaquin Phoenix and Tahar Rahim in Mary Magdalene.
Joaquin Phoenix and Tahar Rahim in Mary Magdalene.
IFC Films

For some viewers, it may not be apparent how radical this could seem to some Christian audiences. The movie essentially suggests that Mary helped found the Christian faith but was edged out by the patriarchy, which wanted to shape Christ’s message of love, forgiveness, and peace into something else entirely — something led by men. The disciples, the movie suggests, purposely downgraded Mary’s status within the group from beloved disciple, equal to them, to a woman who was simply around.

Whether or not they succeeded is up to the viewer’s interpretation, but given the dominance of patriarchal authority throughout Christian history and in some traditions to this day, the movie’s implication is very clear. At the end, however, the movie notes the 2016 proclamation from the Vatican, along with the title “apostle to the apostles” that has often been applied to Mary throughout Christian history, asserting her equality within the group. (The movie erroneously states at the end that this title was applied in 2016, but historians claim it appeared as early as the ninth century.)

The role of gender in church authority is an incredibly complex subject, involving thousands of years of arguments and perspectives on what “equality” looks like. It’s sparked rifts and church splits. That Mary Magdalene’s role was central to this isn’t much of a stretch.

And, of course, a movie won’t solve those theological arguments, many of which are deeply entrenched in millennia of traditions. But it is interesting to see Mary Magdalene tackle them with a perspective that is still essentially reverent, clearly drawing from the text and from church tradition.

Unfortunately, Mary Magdalene falls into some familiar Bible movie ruts

In fact, it might be too reverent. While Mary Magdalene does a good thing in going off book, telling an original story drawn from the text, it loses some steam by falling into the same traps as a number of movies about Jesus. There’s a sort of dreaminess and floatiness to the storytelling, reinforced by a score composed of lots of swelling strings and choral harmonies, making the story feel more like a cousin of fantasy than a story about some people starting a movement. The movie moves very slowly, which isn’t a de facto problem, but coupled with the ethereal quality of the storytelling, it feels unreal.

That may be exacerbated by the performances at its center. They’re quite good, of course; Mara and Phoenix are two of the finest actors working today, and Ejiofor is a bracing presence as Peter. (Mara and Phoenix, of course, are also both white; Hollywood’s long, curiously enduring streak of casting white people as Jesus continues apace, though this one at least springs for some ethnic diversity among the disciples.)

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Simon Peter in Mary Magdalene.
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Simon Peter in Mary Magdalene.
IFC Films

But Mara is almost always otherworldly (Cate Blanchett’s line in Carol that she was “a strange girl, flung out of space” works as a broad description of her), which makes Mary seem something slightly other than human, almost ghostly at moments. It’s hard to know what’s going on inside her, which is strange since the film centers squarely on her.

Jesus, on the other hand, is frequently played as entirely otherworldly, in a way that would belie the Christian idea that he was God, yes, but also completely a man. Played by Phoenix, that humanity breaks through — he cries, he smiles — but at times, he seems to slip into a near-stoned affect, as if Jesus was a hippie cult leader spouting vague aphorisms, not a man whom people found so magnetic that they had to follow him.

As a Christian and a longtime observer of trends in Christian films, I find myself hoping that someday, a director will manage to make a movie that renders a Jesus who fits with what I read in the Bible — a funny, emotional, passionate man, someone whose powers of attention to the world around him are far more developed than everyone else’s. He speaks in enigmas and riddles, but always with a twinkle in his eye. We’re drawn to him so much that we weep when he is executed by people who feel threatened by him, whether or not we believe in him in the world outside the movie theater.

I haven’t quite seen it yet, though I catch glimpses at times. But I appreciate the aim of Mary Magdalene, and the ways it reimagines a familiar story with modern implications, even when it falls flat. There are many stories worth telling from the Bible, and the immersive nature of a movie makes it possible to tell them in fresh new ways. Maybe the more filmmakers try to do so, the closer we get.

Mary Magdalene opens in theaters on April 12.

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