Mary Magdalene is a work of revisionism that scarcely revises anything.
Mary Magdalene is a work of revisionism that scarcely revises anything. Its opening images present a vision of ancient Israel as a harsh place of infertile land where life is hard. A scene of childbirth shows the mother in total agony as she is willed through delivery. Garth Davis films gray landscapes and gray lives with realist handheld camera movements, demystifying the Biblical setting. Yet there’s nothing about the film’s presentation of a desolate, desperate Israel that is not coded into the Gospels themselves; indeed, the whole point of Christ’s mission was to deliver God’s people from the unbearable hostility of corporeal life. Davis’s drab, violent vision of the ancient world only feels like a divergence from the sanitized Biblical films of Hollywood’s classic era, and in some respects this portrait of intimate misery against vast backdrops of barren inhospitality is as literal-minded as Mel Gibson’s fetishization of the period’s violence.
The film’s true attempt at reorienting the Gospels’ tone and focus, of course, is by shifting attention to Mary Magdalene (Rooney Mara), the oft-misunderstood and even maligned figure incorrectly identified in dogma and general acceptance as a prostitute. The result of a conflation of several women among Jesus’s followers, Mary has come to symbolize penitence, the whore reborn a Madonna through Christ’s love. As seen here, however, Mary is not only not a sex worker but is profoundly uncomfortable with the thought even of marriage. Anticipating a life of servitude to a chauvinist husband, Mary pulls away from feminine obligation, intriguingly seeking release in spirituality.
Mary’s displays of extreme piety inform the earliest, and best, section of the film. Davis overcompensates in correcting the record of Mary’s sinful nature by casting her as a religious zealot, but both he and Mara duck reducing her to the pious virgin type by presenting her faith as so extreme as to manifest physically. Overcome with a need to pray, Mary runs into the local temple outside of the hours specified for women, and her frenzied, whispered supplications, bordering on glossolalia, are so frenzied that even the rabbi expresses concern for her. In a bitterly ironic variation on Mary’s historical reputation, her family evinces shame over her zealotry, treating her profound faith as if it were as embarrassing as prostitution. Mary’s brother, Daniel (Denis Ménochet), even accuses her of possession and arranges for a baptismal exorcism with tribe elders. Dragging his terrified sister into a river, Daniel repeatedly submerges her for longer and longer periods of time, screaming incoherently until even the superstitious elders feel the need to intervene for the woman’s safety.
The suggestion that Mary’s life may have been preamble to the centuries of retroactive misogyny applied to her is a clever device, though one that exhausts its narrative and thematic potential about as quickly as it is introduced. Mary soon becomes a subordinate figure in her own story, if willingly so, upon meeting Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix), who comes to her in the wake of her near-death to invite her into his fold of followers. He greets her with a beatific smile, and his talk of a purer faith, of reforging a lost connection to God, spark immediate elation in Mary, who finally finds a kindred spirit in her own quest for spiritual fulfillment and understanding.
Yet for all the film does to impart a sense of Mary different than the popular image of her, Jesus is mostly unchanged. Splitting the difference between the conception of Jesus as religious revolutionary and liberal symbol of early socialism, Jesus talks of injustice of both Roman conquest and of the dead-end tyranny of a faith bound by hierarchy, yet even at his most passionate there is a spacey, mysterious quality to him. And despite the earlier emphasis on atmosphere, the film abruptly shifts into a swift retelling of the Gospels’ greatest hits, as it were, rigidly sprinting through such miracles as the resurrection of Lazarus and making the blind see in such a way that whatever Davis might have wanted to say is buried under a relentlessly plot-driven exercise. The only time he makes space for anything is for interminable scenes of Jesus and Mary exchanging similar thoughts on faith, or of them staring meaningfully at each other in the midst of throngs of skeptics and believers.
This moody, platonic pining defines the film’s second half, with Davis stressing that Mary was perhaps the only member of Jesus’s inner circle who fully, truly believed him, and that he recognized this in her and shared a bond closer than that of the male apostles. This is all fine and well to rehabilitate Mary’s image, but it produces a story that is dramatically inert as Mary herself has no arc once she joins Jesus’s coterie. Compare her moony gazes to the nervous self-regard of Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), whose faith is hampered by his ongoing fear of the reaction of others, or the calcifying zealotry of Judas (Tahar Rahim), whose betrayal is seen here to be rooted not in apostasy but extremism, and Mary’s thin characterization rings hollow. Davis’ concerns with the superficial perception of Mary are so narrowminded that he even bookends the film with farcical text clarification for Mary’s social context (“Peace is fragile. Sedition is growing”) and a biopic-like update on Mary’s subsequent reputation, including a line about the Vatican finally absolving Mary of her false occupation only in 2016. Of course, by underlining that Mary was not impure, Davis largely upholds the very misogyny the film is meant to critique.