REVIEW: Mary Magdalene [2018]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 120 minutes
    Release Date: March 16th, 2018 (UK)
    Studio: Universal Pictures International / IFC Films
    Director(s): Garth Davis
    Writer(s): Helen Edmundson & Philippa Goslett

I wish there were a demon inside me.

I’m a non-practicing Catholic who hasn’t paid attention in Church since earning my First Communion, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the adjective my mind encounters upon hearing the name Mary Magdalene is “prostitute.” It’s the word the church purposefully utilized to erase her from Jesus Christ’s gospel and why she’s generally spoken about as little more than a distraction or even a temptation he had to combat rather than embrace. Like in a patriarchal society, this maneuver allowed a patriarchal religion to keep its vision of powerful men and weak women alive. The Bible was written by men and therefore solidified as a faith ruled by them. Treating Mary as an apostle would therefore shatter that illusion. Her inclusion would ultimately leave Catholicism’s foundation vulnerable.

So you can view the Pope’s 2016 decree to liturgically celebrate Mary on equal footing as the other apostles as a revisionist gesture positioning Catholicism in a more contemporary light to increase its flock within a growing dichotomy change amongst the genders or you can see it as long-awaited reinstatement of a truth buried for the sake of power. Screenwriters Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett are very much of the latter group as evidenced by their film Mary Magdalene. In it they show men threatened by what gender equality means to their status as leaders. They write about the vanity, delusions, and greed warping the minds of canonically great men simply because Peter and company couldn’t fathom Jesus choosing a woman over them despite his teachings proving why.

Rather than tell another version of Christ’s ascension from his own eyes or the men we know from the Bible believed themselves to be his mouthpiece and thus took pains to bolster their importance, Edmundson and Goslett turn the focus onto Mary (Rooney Mara) herself. She’s but a simple woman playing her role amongst a family of men—a woman who sees herself as more than just a potential wife and mother for a man her father and brothers select. So we watch her struggle amongst those who say they love her despite working to do to her everything she rejects. Her brother (Denis Ménochet‘s Daniel) would rather think a demon is inside her than listen to her pleas. Her sister would rather sound the alarm than respect her decision to escape.

Only Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) is willing to see Mary as a human being like the men following him wherever he goes. Some like Judas (Tahar Rahim) agree because the Kingdom he’s been promised is one of equality where the righteous dead will walk again. So why not embrace righteousness as the sole commonality today? Others like Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) vocalize skepticism because it’s the poor and infirm that need saving, not women. To them the balance of power between the genders isn’t in question, but that between Roman rule and the peasants oppressed under thumb. Peter’s group wants war and bloodshed—a visible change through vengeance. It’s therefore Mary who must show them the strength of mercy and interpret Jesus’ words in ways their patriarchal existences blind them from seeing.

Like in his previous film Lion, director Garth Davis looks to place the emotional weight of what’s happening on-screen above all else. He’s going beyond the mythology that we know to treat these characters as though they were fallible people like you and me instead of the venerable saints the church has anointed. That means seeing Mary’s crisis of faith and her giving pause to how Peter’s rhetoric alters what’s she’s heard from Jesus through a toxically masculine lens. It means witnessing a heartsick Judas desperate to reunite with his deceased family and thus willing to force what he believes God’s Kingdom to be. They interpret what they hear upon personal whims, but only their worn-down messiah knows what must be done to ensure his message is received.

This means infighting between factions (Ejiofor is a master at portraying the internalized machinations of hearing one thing and spinning it as another despite knowing the truth in his heart); clarity that often arrives too late; and a feminist focus that portrays what it was that Jesus sought by having psychologically shackled women quite literally leave their lives behind to seek justice with no room to return if things go wrong rather than men who had the “right” to get up and leave their homes without any threat of recourse. By placing this epic journey through Mary’s eyes we can understand the sacrifice as being more than just time and energy. Where Peter sought answers, her choice to follow Jesus was a betrayal to her name.

That gives her disciple status more worth than mere scripture. It roots her decision in real world consequences women still face today when it comes to acquiring freedom from the men wishing to rule them. And Davis shoots it with an ethereal lilt, the visuals recalling those of Terrence Malick‘s more metaphysical offerings and the connection between Mary and Jesus one that transcends words. When they look at each other from a distance separated by an expanse of desert or sea of people, there’s an understanding in their silent gaze. The love she receives from him is one she’s not experienced from anyone else because it isn’t predicated on blood or sex. It’s the same look he gives Peter and why the latter treats it as an attack.

Mary Magdalene is thus the perfect stand-in for today’s social climate. Her apparent threat upon the status quo is nothing more than acting as any man already does. This is a matter of adhering to one’s station or rebelling against it. The simple fact that she was by Jesus’ side during his tragic end and not them shows how much more imperative he was to her story. They saw him as a leader taking them to war for a new world while she knew him as a steward ushering her towards the promise of what this world could become. They sought power because their entitlement prevented them from seeing that which they already possessed. She sought independence and agency. While they demanded control, she found a voice free from it.

[1] Rooney Mara as “Mary Magdalene” in Garth Davis’s Mary Magdalene. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
[2] Joaquin Phoenix as “Jesus” in Garth Davis’s Mary Magdalene. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
[3] Rooney Mara as “Mary Magdalene” and Chiwetel Ejiofor as “Peter” in Garth Davis’s Mary Magdalene. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

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