Coming just in time for an Easter release, this biblical biopic written by Helen Edmundson and Phillips Goslett reframes a common misconception about Mary of Magdala. Rather than being cast as the lover of Jesus, or a prostitute, Mary, played by Rooney Mara, is portrayed as the faithful, merciful friend and disciple of Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix), a woman who undoubtedly deserves the recognition as a true apostle which she received in 2016 from the Catholic Church.
At the beginning of this film, Mary, living amongst her family in a village, is called upon to help birth a baby. She has 'the touch', she is able to calm the labouring woman. Later on, we see Mary use these same skills, once to calm Jesus after an affray, and once again as he hangs, dying, on the cross. Her gaze is firm and seems to calm him as he leaves his worldly body.
Despite a religious education delivered by chapel service once a term for six years, and a half-hearted commitment to Sunday school as a child, my knowledge of the bible stories is patchy at best. Watching Mary Magdalene as a non-religious viewer, there are clues that I may have missed in terms of story and characters, but I do recognise Judas (Tahar Rahim) as the apostle who betrayed Jesus when he is introduced. It's an interesting take on the usual portrayal of Judas as he who betrays Jesus for a handful of coins. This film asserts that Judas had so much faith that he was forcing Jesus into a corner. If he was captured he would finally use his powers for all to see, releasing himself and demonstrating that he was, indeed, the son of god.
A feminist analysis of this film would argue that Mary makes a choice to escape the bondage of familial expectations, refuses to marry a man chosen by her father, because she was aware that she "wasn't made for this life". Jesus and his disciples offer her the chance to deny her society and the safety to travel.
A more theological analysis might argue the case for her faith. She is always solemn, thoughtful, beautiful. She adores Jesus and follows him, willingly, despite the tarnishing of her reputation. Mary, mother of Jesus, (another character I recognise), puts it to her that God has asked a lot of her, in this life.
This story is, as it has been for hundreds of years, all about faith. Blind faith. The disciples had but one common philosophy, that Jesus would be King of the Jews. He himself never said anything of the sort. The film suggests that Mary was the only apostle to properly understand Jesus' teachings, and that the male apostles warped the word of Jesus. Instead of understanding his teachings that a change in mindset was what was needed to find the kingdom of God, Peter, Judas, et. al. were focused on glory and wanted an uprising of the faithful. Mary is depicted as already understanding the need to look after the sick, the poor, the disenfranchised. Her ability to be kind, to show love and mercy to her fellow humans, was evident from the first scene.
The scenery is one of the highlights of this film for me. The rocky outcrops over which the apostles trek, the forlorn ocean paths they follow which lead to authentic medieval style villages, are exactly what I imagine the territory looking like. Haunting music is piped in over the scenery to create a solemn feeling, highlighting the seriousness of the task which they are undertaking.
The character development is not strong due to a lack of dialogue. The audience is left to assume the strength of the bond between Mary and Jesus, the intensity of their gazes at each other a depiction of their mutual respect and love.
The final scene of the film, with Mary floating underwater, where she can "feel close to God", surrounded by many other floating women, similarly enlightened, is beautiful and reminds me of that feeling of otherworldliness that exists beneath the water's surface. The negative things that happen on earth cannot be focused on when faced with the wonder of the depths of the ocean. The women's souls are free, they won't be silenced, they, too, will spread the word and live with love in their hearts.
I am left with the distinct impression that women have a central role in the church, and always have, but that's been put aside because it didn't fit the patriarchal narrative. Edmundson and Goslett succeed in delivering this message.
This film will appeal to those who are looking for a revision of the historical depiction of Mary but is sure to have its dissenters. It's not a film for the masses who attend blockbusters, but it certainly will generate some conversations about the role of women in the church.