Dir: Garth Davis
How do you make a biblical film that will satisfy audiences? Deliver word-for-word speeches straight from an acceptable translation? Remain faithful to conventional dogma? Stay true to the depiction of ancient cultural lifestyles, but not too faithful so as to alienate Western audiences? Adapting any much loved text is going to be problematic. There are so many different intuitive criteria that diverse audiences will use to decide if they like your approach! Mary Magdalene takes a brave slant on the telling of this story, one that may divide viewers.
Mary is an unmarried young woman, to the distress of her parents. She clearly has a mind of her own in a quiet, unaggressive way. Also clearly, she is not mentally ill, demon possessed or a prostitute as various traditions of the church have tried to paint her. If the film’s aim is to correct these falsehoods then it succeeds in spades. Young Mary yearns for something else in life and hearing the wandering preacher Jesus, she decides, once again to the distress of her parents, to follow him. Depicted here as the sole female in the disciples crew, her presence is scandalous. The group travels the countryside, Peter a glowering presence and an excitable Judas anticipating an end to Roman rule. Soon enough the little community is on its way to Jerusalem and certain conflict. The script centres on the messianic hopes of the disciples, through Jesus’ clear focus is this Kingdom of God idea he keeps talking about. And then: Golgotha. Finishing with a purposeful Mary disregarding Peter’s disbelief of her resurrection experience, the story rebalances conceptions of the Jesus movement as founded only by men.
Garth Davis, the director of 2016’s much loved Lion, knows how to find the emotional core of a story. He manages to do that here quite successfully. But it doesn’t feature dialogue straight from the Bible, at least very often. Sometimes you’ll hear what is almost an echo of the text we know. Occasionally verbatim dialogue; the teaching-the-disciples-to-pray scene is beautifully done. Mostly though, situations unfold that we recognise, always staying true to the final point of each scenario. The requisite emotional heft is present, if not the exact words we might expect. A brave, yet I think effective approach has been taken here; metaphorically the film is a Monet impressionistic work, rather than a Rembrandt representational painting.
What the film does provide is a measured pace for viewers to consider the emotional arc each character travels. A slower speed allows more time to consider the contrast between naturally lit exquisite local scenery and the use of character close-ups. Rooney Mara’s face is wonderful as a canvas that leaves her thoughts and feelings palpable. The subtlety of her performance shines through. As the other non-middle Eastern actor here, Joaquin Phoenix is probably a little too craggy to be a 30-something Jesus. Even so he brings a rare quality to the part. There is no doubting his charisma but it comes from a different place to other more clean-cut versions of Jesus we’ve seen in the past. The depiction could provide the fodder for many Christological debates.
Of note too is Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Peter and Tahar Rahim’s Judas. More focus is given to them than the other disciples and Rahim in particular is terrific. His boyish enthusiasm and joy as he experiences the ministry of Jesus provides a sharp counterweight to later scenes where crushing disappointment leads to an inevitable Matthean end.
Mary Magdalene is a brave and fascinating film. It drove me back to the biblical text, not to find errors but as a way to appreciate the poetry in both the film and the Gospels. There are thought-provoking moments, especially one at the film’s close that will have viewers talking. But what better result for a film centering on someone we care about so much.
Jonathan Sargeant is Director of Lay Education at St Francis College and is currently doing doctoral research in the area of film and theology.
Many thanks to the good people at Heritage Films and Metro Church, Southport for arranging the preview Jonathan attended!