Mary Magdalene Review

Mary Magdalene
After a miracle-performing Rabbi named Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) visits her village on the coast of Galilee, Mary of Magdala (Rooney Mara) leaves her home and family to join him as his newest disciple, and witnesses the key events during the final months of his life.

by Dan Jolin |
Published on
Release Date:

16 Mar 2018

Original Title:

Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene has always been a vague, mutable figure in Christian teaching who tends to tell us more about the prejudices of the time than who she really was. Sadly, it’s Pope Gregory I’s take on her which has dominated most of history. In the late sixth century, the patriarchal git recast her as “the sinful woman” — a whore who Christ oh so mercifully redeemed. Never mind that she’s directly named more than any other apostle in the four Gospels. Or that she was the first person the resurrected Jesus first appeared to. Or that there’s no evidence she was ever a prostitute. In Gregory’s eyes, she needed to be put in her place.

And it’s a place which cinema’s been all too happy to keep her. After all, it makes for a better (arguably sexier) story, right through to Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ and Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ, which both conflate her with the supposed adulterer Jesus saves from stoning. With Mary Magdalene, however, Australian director Garth Davis (Lion) aims to set the record straight and return her to her rightful place as the 13th disciple who became even closer to the Messiah than his “rock”, Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

Phoenix, sadly, does not a convincing Christ make.

It’s a worthy and welcome move, one which makes the film’s earliest scenes its most interesting. We get to see how Mary might really have lived, hauling fish nets with her sisters on the shore of Galilee, and resisting her father and brother’s attempts to marry her off with such nonconformist vehemence they assume demons have infested her soul. Portrayed with poise and resilience by Rooney Mara, she’s an initially compelling figure who appears in virtually every scene, whether enraptured by the sermons of Jesus (Phoenix), tending to the starving victims of Roman oppression, or defiantly tackling the jealousy of the other disciples, primarily the put-out Peter.

But as the story rolls on through Passover, it becomes more repetitive and familiar, briskly skipping through the big, climactic events in Jerusalem leading up to, and after, the crucifixion. The perspective may be fresh and the style impressively historical rather than mythical (an opening title notably says we’re in 33 CE rather than AD), but the events obviously remain the same, with the narrative inevitably becoming more dependent on Jesus himself. And Phoenix, sadly, does not a convincing Christ make. As the only actor here with an American accent, he feels less like a divinely empowered first-century religious activist than an acid-tweaked Summer-Of-Lover who’s rocked up in the wrong New Testament-based show.

Davis’ film may be timely and appropriate in the way it liberates the cinematic Magdalene from ‘fallen woman’ cliché, but for all its good intentions — and a strong turn from Mara — it loses focus during the crucial final act, denying the disciple the great story she deserves.

An interesting new take on a very well-known tale and a praiseworthy act of revisionism, but one which doesn’t ultimately deliver on its early promise.
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