In the first century, free-spirited Mary Magdalene flees the marriage her family has arranged for her, finding refuge and a sense of purpose in a radical new movement led by the charismatic, rabble-rousing preacher named Jesus. The sole woman among his band of disciples, Mary defies the prejudices of a patriarchal society as she undergoes a profound spiritual awakening and finds herself at the center of an Earth-shaking historical moment.
Initial release: april 15, 2019 (Germany)
Director: Garth Davis
Box office: 11.6 million USD
Production companies: See-Saw Films, Porchlight Films, Film4 Productions, FilmNation Entertainment
Distributed by: Focus Features, IFC Films
Mary Magdalene’s place in Christian biblical canon has seen a progressive revision in recent years. Falsely branded a prostitute by Pope Gregory I during the Middle Ages, the Vatican elevated Mary to “Apostle of the Apostles” in 2016 to affirm her stature. Her story is told with reverence by director Garth Davis. He portrays Mary Magdalene with the utmost respect, but never establishes a personal connection to the character. Her journey with Jesus is documented, as well as her faith. But there is a paucity of substance to her internal feelings. The result is a somber tale that fails to be compelling.
Rooney Mara stars as Mary. The film opens on the shores of the fishing village Magdala in Judea. The year is 33 CE. Mary is troubled by her place in the world. Her father (Tchéky Karyo) and brothers believe that she must be possessed by a demon. Why else would she not be satisfied with a marriage proposal by a respected widower? Her questioning nature is an affront that embarasses her family.
Mary is captivated by the message of a travelling rabbi. She watches in astonishment as Jesus of Nazareth (Joaquin Phoenix) preaches forgiveness, then performs miracles that heal the sick. Mary leaves her family to join Jesus and his apostles; who are concerned about her presence. Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is wary of the young woman, but Judas (Tahar Rahim) accepts her. As the preachings and incredible feats of the messiah spread, Mary is a stalwart supporter of Jesus’ divine gospel. His followers grow, but Jesus confides to Mary that his time will soon come. Their path to Jerusalem will have tremendous consequences.
Mary Magdalene puzzled me on several other fronts. On one hand, Garth Davis and his production team do well with the settings. The villages, earthen towns in Judea, all look historically accurate for the time. I also appreciated the diverse racial casting of the apostles. Where the film goes south is Mary’s pristine cleanliness. Rooney Mara is swathed in white cotton and linen throughout the film. Mary sleeps in the dirt, walks miles on dusty roads, but looks like she just stepped out of a salon. Her teeth are sparkling white. Mary is almost ethereal in her flawlessness. She sticks out noticeably from the unwashed, matted masses of extras and supporting cast members. Was this done on purpose as a nod to her virtues? I honestly can’t tell if Garth Davis had an artistic intent in portraying Mary Magdalene as physically immaculate. It struck me as odd and felt out of place.
I do appreciate the film’s intentions. The story of Jesus has been told umpteen times from a male point of view. Mary Magdalene, regardless of your religious beliefs, is a fresh perspective. She is a vital part in Christian lore and deserves a sensible portrayal. Mary Magdalene is a good effort, just not ultimately successful. The film was completed three years ago, but languished because of The Weinstein Company’s collapse. Mary Magdalene will be finally distributed in U.S. theaters by IFC Films on April 12th.
The retelling of the last days of Jesus Christ has been a staple in the American film industry dating back to the silent picture era. With great restraint, director Garth Davis (Lion) and producers Iain Canning and Emile Sherman recount this spiritual story with a very modern focus on Mary Magdalene. They give it a feminist interpretation.
Putting Mary center stage dates back to the 1927 silent film King of Kings, when director Cecil B. DeMille gave actress Jacqueline Logan the role of Mary Magdalene and Jeanie Macpherson’s script supplied her with ample screen time in the film’s final moments. The difference with this 2019 rendering is that the woman in Jesus’s life is the focus from the onset. Once branded no more than a prostitute by patriarchal religions, Mary is now the Messiah’s most steadfast apprentice.
Mary (Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and her family live in the village of Magdala, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, a lake in Israel that the Jordan River flows into. Her nearly uncontrollable devotion to praying scares her father Elisha (Tchéky Karyo). He is so desperate to rid her of this obsession that her brother Daniel (Denis Ménochet) and he attempt an exorcism, dunking her in the lake, like a baptism, so many times that she almost drowns.
As she eschews the advances of a potential husband (Tsahi Halevi, Bethlehem), her interests turn to a man named Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) who performs miracles in the region. He preaches peace and love as he builds a following.
A group of disciples faithfully observes Jesus’ teachings: Peter aka Simon (Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave) is his righthand man; Judas Iscariot (Tahar Rahim, A Prophet) is close to him too. Andrew (Charles Babalola, The Legend of Tarzan) is the brother of Peter; there’s James (Tawfeek Barhom, Dancing Arabs); the elderly Phillip (Uri Gavriel, The Dark Night Rises); Matthew the tax collector (Michael Moshonov, Dancing Arabs); and others.
Mary joins the preacher and his apostles. They roam from town to town like a cult, sleeping on streets and spreading the word. Jesus heals the sick and raises the dead. As his miracles grow so do the crowds who gather, worship him and make him an icon. That reverence and admiration comes under the watchful eye of the Roman prefect Pontius Pilatus of Judaea. For reasons that Mary cannot understand, Judas points out Jesus to the enemy’s men in the Garden of Gethsemane. Soldiers take him away. It is Mary who witnesses his capture, crucifixion and resurrection. It is she who insists that his message of forgiveness must continue.
Through the lens of cinematographer Greig Fraser, the scorched, often barren landscapes capture the essence of the location and the times, even though the footage was shot in Italy. The towns are simple. Interiors of homes nearly bare. This is the stripped-down version of ancient events. Filmmakers like Mel Gibson brutalized the period with graphic, bloody violence in The Passion of the Christ. Martin Scorsese chose a more artistic rendition with The Last Temptation of Christ. Christians may have images in their own minds that differ.
Davis charts his own path by abstaining from graphic violence, being artful but not overly inventive. The camera lingers on images like Mary’s face swathed in a linen scarf, or Jesus’s head framed by a scraggly beard or Peter and James in conversation. The closeups are thoughtfully mixed with long shots of the Messiah and his troop walking down hills, through villages and preaching to the masses. An embracing holy spirit slowly emerges. Never crass, never insufferable.
Considering the drama of the story, the emotions on view are kept pretty sedate. People cry silently. Accusations are leveled without histrionics. Even the moments leading up to Jesus being put on the cross seem restrained, especially compared to Gibson’s ghoulish sea of blood. This non-hysterical approach may seem tepid initially, but in the end, in its own way, it leaves a lasting impression