First, let me say this: I loved this movie, and I know I am in the minority. Unlike most film reviewers, I was not bothered by the slow pacing, the wide open spaces in the dialogue, nor the glances loaded with meaning. Also, unlike most audience members, I was not turned off by the “feminist” interpretation (more on that later), nor the non-literal presentation of the Gospel story, because this is a film that asks us to stop clinging to traditional—and often non-textual—readings of Mary Magdalene. Contrary to some reviews, this movie is not based more on Gnostic texts than the Gospels, but it does weave some bright, challenging extra-canonical threads into what has become a comfortingly familiar orthodox fabric.
I am tempted to write about the film’s treatment of Jesus’s ministry in general, but I’d rather leave that analysis to others more qualified to tease apart the larger topic (such as Matt Page over at Bible Films Blog or Marc Goodacre in his NT Blog.) It is Mary Magdalene, the subject of the film, that I am most interested in, because I think there is much to appreciate in this depiction.
Rooney Mara’s portrayal of Mary Magdalene was beautiful. In her performance I recognized a woman who was earnest and caring but trapped by tradition, and tormented by the conflict between what was expected of her and what she yearned for. From a textual perspective, the first portion of the film is pure fiction; there is no record of her life prior to becoming a follower of Jesus, and even her place of origin is on shaky ground. (Yes, the common assumption is that she was from Magdala. No, it is not certain.) Her fictional origin story is compelling though. We meet her as she goes about chores, and is then fetched to assist in the birth of a child. The mother is laboring ineffectively and the midwife must perform a maneuver to help the baby be born. It is Mary who calms the mother and supports her through the difficult birth. And yet, following the birth, Mary’s brothers seem to view her with suspicion and judgement, in spite of another woman’s testimony that she was helpful and that they should be proud of her.
The relationship between Mary and her father and brothers, we learn, is complicated. There is tension around whether and whom she will marry, and there is some indication that Mary has had problems that would make her unappealing to a prospective husband. In spite of this a man is found, Mary meets him, and it seems a marriage is in her future until she runs off in the night. We see her pacing and talking to herself, and then praying frantically in the synagogue until the rabbi sends for someone to take her home. Not long after, we see in a gut-wrenching scene Mary’s father and brothers dragging her to the sea in the middle of the night to try to drown the demons out of her. She survives, but is traumatized into a near catatonic state.
This is where we meet Joaquin Phoenix’s Jesus, a sensitive hippie type with piercing eyes that seem to see right through people. He is summoned to Mary’s house in the hope that he will be able to heal her of the demons that possess her, but he gently assures her that he sees no demons. He tells her that the presence of God she feels needs only her faith to be complete, and it is that validation, apparently, that ultimately leads to Mary leaving her home, her family, and her future husband to follow the itinerant rabbi.
There was a dramatic moment when Mary’s father pursued her to Jesus’s camp to confront him about allowing her to join his followers. Her father asks, “Would you separate a daughter from her father? Is that God’s way?” In a reference to Luke 14:26, Jesus answers with an almost imperceptible nod, and says “Daughters from fathers. Sons from mothers.” This scene brought that verse to life for me in a way it never had before; identifying with this new, grounded, human Mary Magdalene, the love of her father, and the life-altering decision she was making had a heartbreaking exegetic effect. The implied uncertainty she faced knowing her family had come to retrieve her—would this rabbi she barely knew and his band of all-male followers turn her out?—followed by the knowledge that there was no going back was poignant and powerful. It is the first time I’ve seen a film take on the real, visceral human consequences of someone leaving their family to join Jesus’s ministry.
Much of the movie played out in this way for me. I found Mara’s Mary Magdalene and Phoenix’s Jesus far more accessible than most other on-screen portrayals of these figures. Other interpretations seem to approach them with a reverence that prevents the audience from truly connecting with them, often with an irritating, sanctimonious edge. In Mary Magdalene, the frailty and determination brought by Mara and Phoenix moved me in ways very few actors in Jesus films have, and their humanity allowed me to relate to many of the Gospel stories in new ways. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s portrayal of Peter and Tahar Rahim’s Judas also struck me as stand-out performances, bringing to life the vulnerability and uncertainty inherent in following a man whose message might not be carried out in the way they thought it would, or should.
It is true that the dialogue in this film is spare, and that the story unfolds slowly. However, I’d like to go out on a limb here and suggest that by this point in time most of us know how it ends. Can we not, then, take some time in exploring a new vision of the journey that leads inexorably toward a known destination? I found the spaciousness in the dialogue refreshing and realistic, and the expressive glances revealing. That Mara and Phoenix have a real-life connection might contribute to the wordless communication we witness in the film, because I read it as deeply intimate. Not sexual, not romantic, not spousal, or any of the other hot buttons that Mary Magdalene pushes in audiences these days, but intimate. She trusted him, she believed in him, she loved him, and she understood him and his message in ways the other disciples did not.
Here is where we cross the bridge, I think, that separates traditional cinematic renderings of Mary Magdalene from the one we see here. This film incorporates not only the canonical Gospels of the New Testament, but also material from extra-canonical texts like The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of Mary. There is a strong textual tradition within the first 100 years of Christianity that presents Mary Magdalene as an energetic, outspoken, and faithful disciple, privileged with teachings that were given to her alone, praised by Jesus as possessing greater understanding than his other disciples, and antagonized by many of the the male disciples.
The greatest indication of this tradition here is the depiction of the resurrection. The film takes an uncommon approach, strongly implying that Jesus appears to Mary alone, and that it is entirely possible that she sees him only in a vision rather than bodily. When she delivers the good news to the other disciples, they criticize her, belittle her, and appear jealous of her. Peter’s borderline tolerance of Mary’s presence among them reaches its limit, and they find themselves completely at odds. This too is faithful to the extra-canonical textual tradition I refer to above; Peter and Mary are often set diametrically opposed to one another. Peter’s position is to build a worldly kingdom, and Mary’s is to build the kingdom from within.
It is this boiling point that causes, I believe, many reviewers to refer to this film as “feminist.” It is a word that has been used to describe most scholarship in the last few decades that reveals Mary Magdalene as not only a woman maligned by tradition as a whore, but as a powerful leader and yes, an apostle. Although the canonical Gospels do contain enough information about Mary Magdalene to qualify her for the title of “apostle” (which the Roman Catholic Church finally acknowledged in 2016), they do not support a perspective of her as a spiritual leader and teacher. Those who wish to inform their view of Christianity solely on the canon need not read further, because nothing I write here can convince them otherwise. However, for those of us who are open to a fuller view of what Christianity was like in the first 100 years—or even 400—we have a rich tapestry of interwoven beliefs, favored figures among different groups, and textual variants even within the Gospels we have all come to know. This expansive view of Christianity, rather than an understanding constrained by the prevailing texts, is what gives me pause when the label “feminist” is applied. It is not feminist, in my opinion, to represent traditions that lived and breathed alongside the ones that have become the most dominant today. It is simply another version of the same story, much the way it was 1900 years ago. To some Christians within a generation following Jesus’s crucifixion, Mary Magdalene was a woman who followed Jesus, who asked him questions no one else thought to ask, who developed a deep understanding of the man and the message, and who undertook teaching the same following his departure. It is this Mary Magdalene that we meet in this film, and I am thrilled beyond words to see her realized in this way.
Mary Magdalene was released in the UK and Australia in March, 2018. It was set to be released in the US by the Weinstein Company, which then cancelled the release due to financial and corporate instability. As of the date of this writing the film is not yet available in the US, but it can be acquired in multi-region format if the viewer has access to a DVD player that can accommodate it.