Released to the rest of the world over one year ago, director Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene is finally making its way to the United States, just in time for Easter. It seems likely the delay was due to a lack of confidence that American audiences would take to this decidedly new version of the venerable saint. Well, after viewing it, there would appear to be at least two main ways the film can be taken.
The first is to do so as the filmmakers no doubt intended. That is, to approach the movie as a thought-provoking reimagining of the Magdalene’s story as seen through the lens of modern feminist thought. Do so, and you will find this to be the story of an intelligent young lady born into a society into which women have no control over their own lives. They exist basically to participate in arranged marriages, breed, and keep quiet.
When Mary (Rooney Mara) dares to speak her mind one too many times, the men in charge declare her to be possessed by demons. Fortunately, just when things seem their worst, a charismatic teacher by the name of Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) happens by. Impressed with Mary’s worldview, Jesus performs a fake exorcism to assuage the locals. Then, unperturbed by the fact that she is a woman, Jesus makes Mary his right-hand person. Unfortunately, Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the rest of Jesus’ male followers are not as open-minded as their master, and Mary once again finds herself in a struggle to have her voice be heard.
It’s a problem that only intensifies as Jesus nears the climax of his mission. Each of the Apostles has his own idea of how exactly said mission should be played out, but only Mary seems to grasp the true transformative nature of Jesus’ teaching. She, and only she, understands that to change the world, you must first change your heart.
It all comes to a head after Jesus is crucified. While Mary Magdalene and the rest of Jesus’ female followers slip away to preserve the truth in silence, the clueless men go off to start a Church. You see, there are so many incorrect ways in which the words of Jesus can be interpreted, the movie seems to be saying, and perhaps we’ve been listening to the wrong voices for far too long. That’s the first way to approach the movie.
The second way is to not approach it at all.
While the look of the film is fine and the acting is uniformly good, any viewer with an ounce of respect for the actual biblical narrative will find themselves far too distracted keeping track of all the little ways the film butchers history to enjoy any of it. On top of that, to put it bluntly, it’s boring. If you’re going to make a revisionist tale that challenges centuries of belief about its main characters, you really need to find a more engaging way of doing so than showing repeated scenes of people staring wistfully into the desert.
Worst of all, though, is what the film does to Mary herself. The Magdalene is justifiably considered one of the greatest saints in the history of Christendom. She followed Jesus throughout his ministry, was present when he was crucified, and was there for his resurrection. More importantly, as the woman possessed by seven demons, and in tradition and art an acknowledged great sinner (though likely not the prostitute some claimed her to be), Mary Magdalene offers a narrative of salvation, conversion, and unswerving devotion to Jesus that is one of the most beautiful portrayals of discipleship in the Bible.
None of that applies to the woman in this film, however. Instead we are presented with an insufferable “Mary Sue” Magdalene who is always the smartest person in the upper room, and whose only sin is her apparent inability to convince the Apostles how stupid they are. Such an approach may prove inspirational to a select few, but to the untold numbers of those who have developed a devotion to the saint over the past two centuries, it’s going to fall flat. In short, by trying to give Mary Magdalene an appeal to a certain modern mindset, the film robs her story of all the elements that have made it timeless.