Archived from The Magdalene Review on Saturday 24 December 2005:
Mary Magdalene (2000), the United States release of the Italian made-for-television film Gli amici di Gesù – Maria Maddalena, was not a run-of-the-mill Mary Magdalene movie. Usually movies about Mary Magdalene fall into two categories: those about Jesus in which she happens to appear, usually as repentant prostitute, and pious retellings of Mary’s racy life that end with her finding Jesus, salvation, and peace. Although the film currently under review is absolutely at home in the latter category, it doesn’t come across as pretentious and superficial as others have.
Mary Magdalene, a married woman, is divorced by her husband because she could not bear children. Sworn to revenge, she beds a Roman soldier and leaves her birthright, Magdala, to her manipulative husband. Soon, however, she learns that the soldier she chose as an escape presents a new set of problems, and she is left in Tiberius alone after being brutally attacked. She attempts suicide, but is restored to life aboard a fishing vessel by a mysterious teacher whose followers pulled her lifeless body from the Sea of Galilee.
Before Mary can learn more about her savior, she is plucked, by a servant of Herod’s new wife, Herodias, from a group of people as they sit listening to the teacher on the shore. Herodias, frantically in search of a cure for leprous sores on her arm, asks Mary if she is an experienced healer. Having practiced plant medicine back in Magdala, Mary agrees to help. When she hears of Mary’s desire for revenge against her former husband, Herodias sees an opportunity to entangle the troubled woman in her own pursuits of power; she teaches Mary how to comport herself in a manner to seduce men in order to get whatever she wants. The catch, of course, is that Mary’s conquests also benefit the queen.
Mary is acquainted with John the Baptist, who is taken prisoner by Herod. She doesn’t understand the Baptist’s message of forgiveness, but is sympathetic to his plight. When Herodias is able to secure his death through clever manipulation of her daughter and husband, Mary finally breaks; she cannot serve a woman so cold and calculating. Matters become worse when Mary’s lover, another Roman soldier, acts on Mary’s planted suggestions to kill her previous lover and destroy her ex-husband by razing Magdala. In a sudden attack of conscience, Mary rushes to Magdala in time to witness the sorrow she has wrought. A young boy, the son of her dearest friend, is killed, and she is beside herself with grief. Enter, Jesus, who arrives on the scene just in time to restore the boy to life, giving Mary back the friendship she thought had been lost. His female disciples bring her into the fold, and, while at the house of Simon the Pharisee, she has a breakthrough in which she fully realizes the power of God’s love. A re-enactment of the anointing scene from the Gospel of Luke follows.
The story is powerful, even if it is entirely fictional. I found that it was much more poignant than many American attempts to flesh out Mary Magdalene’s story, even if the dubbing into English made the dialog feel more stilted than it already was. It’s difficult to put my finger on what it was about this movie that caused me to enjoy it as much as I did; it might have been the sumptuous costumes and sets, it might have been the grittiness of the Italian retelling, or perhaps it was the deep beauty of the actress portraying Mary Magdalene. Maria Grazia Cucinotta is by far one of the most fetching Mary Magdalenes to have graced the silver screen, offering fair competition to even Monica Bellucci (The Passion of The Christ). Yet another possibility for my attraction to this movie, though, is that at times it was believable. I wanted to weep with Mary over the death of her friend’s son; her agony and shame were palpable. Jesus, although conspicuously modern with his perfectly capped teeth and well-groomed hair, still managed to positively exude love. The anointing scene in this film moved me as it hasn’t before.
If a speculative approach to the traditional Mary Magdalene isn’t objectionable to you, this film is worth two hours of your time.
[Note – 12/20/18: Matt Page over at Bible Movie Blog reviewed this back in November 2006. Please take some time to visit and give it a read. I’ve always enjoyed Matt’s thoughtful commentary on films dealing with Biblical subjects!]