Watching Mary Magdalene on the International Women’s Day (March 8) seems to be very fitting. The movie will be released on March 22nd here in Australia but there is an advanced screening today – so I went to see it with some of our friends from church.
The story revolves around Mary Magdalene (Rooney Mara) – a controversial figure from the Gospel, and one of the followers of Jesus, played by Joaquin Phoenix. Although Mary Magdalene is traditionally thought to be a prostitute ( … and the movie displays a postscript that this is due to the label given to her by Pope Gregory the Great in 591) – the movie makes a case that this is only because Mary is a free-spirited woman. On the night that she is meant to get married, Mary runs away to the synagogue to pray – feeling confused and wanting something more in life. Her brothers and father then agree to call the ‘Healer’ – Jesus – to get rid of the demons that are plaguing her. This sets a series of event – after which Mary asks to be baptised, and follows Jesus and the disciples. Garth Davis (the director) – and the writers (Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett) position Jesus’ disciples as a band of men who follow Jesus only because He is meant to be a revolutionary figure, and not due to his Godliness. It’s the disappointment that Jesus was crucified that led Judas to kill himself, for example – and not because of his remorse. Mary Magdalene is also given a far more important role throughout Jesus’ ministry – for example to also baptise new believers and lay hands on the crowds following Jesua dn the disciples. The writers are careful not to stray too far into suggesting that there was something untoward between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, although the viewers are led to feel that there was something deep between the two of them.
This positioning makes the movie a bit awkward to digest.
The crew behind the movie arguably have worked very hard in showing Jesus’ humanity, and that Mary Magdalene surely was that important to Him, way back when. The issue is that while it may or may not be factually right, there seems to be no conviction in the movie. It’s like a group of vegans making a movie about the benefits of eating meat – you can just sense that there’s something significant that is missing. You can’t sense godly love from Joaquin Phoenix‘s eyes when Jesus is on the screen – quite contrary to Jim Caviezel’s version when he played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. You can grab a deeper sense of anguish and of love in that movie.
The writers are also careful in not crossing the boundary of what is written in the Books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. However, they want to fill up every void in the story with their own version makes the movie skirt the boundary so many times, just like a car that is driven zigzagging. It may be on the path still, but not quite travelling straight, sometimes so leisurely slow, sometimes skipping all over the place with its uneven pacing. This is if you do know the accounts written in the Bible – however, if you haven’t read the Gospel, chances are you will be quite confused with the movie with its frequent long jumps and glimpses of key incidents in Jesus’ ministry. If you have read the Bible, you will also see where the writers apply their artistic licence on the Scripture …
The only saving grace of the movie is the music by Hildur Hildur Guðnadóttir and Jóhann Jóhannsson – beautifully haunting and melancholic – and Gath Davis’ sense of atmospheric directions and cinematography. The rest? Unfortunately a big miss.