Directed by Garth Davis
Starring Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Eliojor, Tahar Rahim
A biblical film may feel like an odd follow up for the director of the box office smash Lion, but that is exactly what Garth Davis has done. The result is a very different film, but one that seeks to convey that same sense of humanity and empathy that Lion does. Mary Magdalene looks at one of the most misunderstood bible characters, and instead of a prostitute in love with Jesus (a claim created by Pope Gregory I), finds a woman struggling against the confines of her social position and looking for not just a better life, but a fairer world.
Rejecting an arranged marriage and struggling against the wishes of her older brother, suggests to many in her home town that Mary (Rooney Mara) has a demon in her. Yet when an itinerant “rabbi” visits her, he doesn’t find a possessed woman, but someone willing to hear his teachings and become a student. Leaving her home town with the small group of disciples, Mary follows Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) listening to his teachings, as he sets out on his way to Jerusalem, and his eventual crucifixion and resurrection.
There is certainly a valid intention behind Mary Magdalene, as Davis aims to convey the humanity behind the religion, both for the better and the worse. His tilt on popular biblical icons (based on the meticulously researched script by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett) is something different than we’ve seen before. Not just for Mary; he also explores the humanity of Jesus, the doubt of Peter, the fervour of Judas, and of course the faith of the titular Mary. Given how well trodden this filmic ground is, it is certainly novel to see a unique approach, with an important message of forgiveness at it’s heart. Inspired by the message of Nobel Peace winner Malala Yousafzai, the core of this film is as much humanist as it is Christian, even if it does come from a thorough understanding of biblical and associated texts (primarily the Gospel of Mark, and the Gospel of Mary).
Hence we see Jesus as a teacher, and a “rabbi” occasionally doubtful his message will be understood, Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as a reformer with his own take on Jesus’ agenda, Judas (Tahar Rahim) as a true believer willing to do what it takes to bring about change, and Mary as the observer and patient student. We also get to see a depiction of 1st century Israel that is different than one we’ve seen before. Gone are the deserts and rocky locations we’re so used to associating with biblical films, instead it’s a harsh but fertile land, a land of coastlines and small towns. It’s a world that feels alive, inhabited and real.
Unfortunately it is the only thing that does feel alive and real in this film. Despite its noble intentions and interesting take on well worn biblical characters, the film itself it slowly meditative to the point of sleep inducing. Rooney Mara does what she can with the character, but we never feel that we get a real sense of her, beyond an observer to history. Ultimately there is just not enough meat on the bone to make the script wring truly like her tale, and Davis’ gentle style aggravates this issue rather than elevates it.
Ultimately this makes Mary Magdalene a film more for those with a scholastic interest in the bible, more than one for the general public. There is much of interest here, but unfortunately those good intentions don’t a good film make.