Cast: Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim
Runtime: a perfect 120 min.
Mary Magdalene is an interesting, but difficult movie to enjoy- you really need a good knowledge of the good book or else you’re not going to have a particularly a good time.
For those who aren’t religious- the story of Mary Magdalene (or sometimes alternatively referred to as Mary of Magdala/ Mary the Magdalene to differentiate from the Virgin Mary Immaculate) is a footnote in the Gospels (according to Mark and Matthew), in which she appears right near the end of the Passion, personally witnessing the crucifixion of the Christ, and then His rising from the dead.
This footnote isn’t exactly a lot of material to work with when you’re trying to create a screenplay- a lot of gaps have to be filled- the film gives the Magdalene an origin story- an unmarried village midwife who spends her days helping the other women in the fields and the shores catching fish, and in order to avoid an arranged marriage, flees her village and joins Jesus the Nazarene (Joaquin Phoenix), and the twelve apostles as they preach the Gospel across the land of the Israelites, but yet also coming to terms with the fact that the man she follows is destined to die upon the Cross.
For all it’s narrative faults, this movie is technically blessed- the score by the late Johann Johansson (who did Arrival and Sicario, which are also two brilliant films) is hauntingly gorgeous, and the way the film builds up to some of the key scenes, and yet cuts to the chase and doesn’t draw out these scenes- my most favourite section is the almost delirium like buildup as the Christ approaches the temple in Jerusalem to smash and upturn the tables of the traders and the moneychangers. Joaquin Phoenix isn’t bad as Jesus Christ, but neither is he a great one. Rooney Mara however, does lend a stoic, feminine dignity to the eponymous heroine.
However this film’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t have a target audience in mind- Evangelicals won’t particularly like the portrayal of the Christ as a rather zealous, dishevelled, raving, semi-mad man of enlightened learning (more closer to Gnostic tradition), and Catholics might be miffed by the depiction of Peter the Apostle (Chiwetel Eijofor), the founder of the institution as a bit of a stiff-necked, parochial hardliner. I would probably say that this film’s best audience is for the budding theologians and others who just read a lot of esoteric stuff- a target audience that isn’t exactly packing the terraces in this day and age, if it has ever. A secondary problem is that Mary Magdalene doesn’t seem to have much of a character progression from start to end, so it doesn’t even really work as a functional film.
Mary Magdalene is a film I personally enjoyed a lot, being the rare example of aforementioned (sorry, not sorry), but I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t enjoy it. In the pantheon of Christian-themed films, it lacks the mass appeal of say Passion of the Christ or Noah’s Ark (Darren Aronofsky’s highest-grossing film, much to his chargrin).