The story of Jesus of Nazareth may very well be the most famous biblical narrative of all time. Billions of people throughout the generations, across a wide array of races, religions, and cultural backgrounds are familiar with the essential elements of Jesus’s life. The belief in His sacrifice for humanity and subsequent resurrection from the dead form the very foundation of the Christian faith, the largest organized religion in the world. Still, while there have been many different accounts from various sources regarding Jesus’s interactions with the world, accounts of perhaps one of His closest followers, Mary Magdalene, are often overlooked. Most people are familiar with the disciples such as John, Matthew, Peter, or James, but Mary is usually thought of as the lowly prostitute who was forgiven and cleansed by the merciful Jesus. Mary Magdalene, from director Garth Davis and screenwriters Helen Edmunds and Philippa Goslett, aims to tell this story through the eyes of a woman whose reputation and character have been grossly misrepresented by history’s cruel hand.
The eponymic character of the film, portrayed by Rooney Mara, is a young woman from the village of Magdala, near Galilee, in the time of Jesus’s teachings and gaining of followers. Rather than submitting to the culture of arranged marriage and deference to the men of the family, Mary declines an engagement offer from Ephraim (Tsahi Halevi). This strong stance from Mary unfortunately results in her ostracization, with her father, Elisha (Tchéky Karyo), and brother, Daniel (Denis Ménochet), deciding that she must have a demon possessing her soul, requiring an exorcism. While her blood relatives turn their backs on her, the mysterious wandering rabbi, Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix), welcomes her with open arms to His family of apostles and followers. The relationship between Mary and Jesus serves as the groundwork of the entire narrative.
Although the other disciples have developed enough faith to leave behind their old lives and follow this leader, who has been deemed by many as a sociopath, Mary has a deeper connection and understanding of Jesus than any of them. Mary is the disciple that truly comprehends His messages and the prophecies of what must transpire in order for His time on Earth to be ultimately fulfilled. Many of the other followers, notably Peter (the charismatic Chiwetel Ejiofor), are doubtful and unfamiliar with Jesus’s intentions and predictions. Even though Mary desperately pleads with them to listen to her thoughts and interpretations of Jesus’s words, she is written off and discredited, partly because she has not been in the group as long as the rest, but mostly due to the fact that she is a woman. These judgments perfectly represent the constructs of the patriarchal society of this time period. Had Mary been a male, she likely would have been taken much more seriously, but her status as a female has a large impact on her supposed lack of credibility. Yet, this is exactly one of the reasons that Jesus chooses her as His closest friend. He desires to bring to the world a message of light, love, compassion, and acceptance. His interactions with Mary, an outcast, are vessels for these themes.
While the essential ideas and meanings of the story are quite compelling and dynamic, the narrative may rely a little too heavily on them in certain instances, rather than focusing on telling the story. The unfolding events are communicated using a very slow, methodically paced technique, with some repetition regarding Jesus’s travels and performances of miracles. One portion in the middle of the film is basically Jesus going from village to village, healing the ill and wounded, raising people from the dead, and converting believers. Some viewers may find these recycled events slightly repetitive, but these scenes do serve to build the legend of Jesus and His remarkable impact on the world around Him. Coinciding with this narrative progression is the furthering of Mary’s relationship with Jesus. The miracles that He performs extract a heavy physical toll on His body and livelihood, and Mary is always the first follower to proactively intervene and provide support to the weakened Jesus. The rest of the disciples appear perplexed and befuddled, but Mary’s instincts take over, knowing exactly how to care for the rabbi.
Interestingly enough, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Jesus may not completely land with viewers. Even as an Oscar-nominated actor and force to be reckoned with in Hollywood since his start as a teenager, some could find his depiction of Jesus to not align with their own preconceptions. Undertaking this role is, of course, one of the most ambitious aspirations to be had by an actor, so it is logical that any actor’s performance could divide audiences. It is during the more personal, intimate moments of the film that his portrayal will find the most criticism. He struggles to find his footing and to produce an authentic, convincing representation of Jesus. Certain segments feel inexpressive and vague. The gentle, compassionate nature that he attempts to display comes off as robotic, blank, and inauthentic. On the other hand, Mara’s performance in the midst of these scenes comes off as much more believable and convincing. There is a quiet strength about Mary that is admirable and worthy of great respect. Any story containing Jesus will be prone to the potential dominance of His character, even when the narrative should be focused on someone else. However, the fine line is straddled well in this film, concentrating more on Mary’s experiences, encounters, and reactions to the seemingly world-changing events occurring around her.
Even as Phoenix runs into difficulties with his role in some of the story’s quieter scenes, he undoubtedly shines in other instances in which he is allowed to unleash his intense personality and unbridled zeal as an actor. The famous account from the Biblical text, detailing Jesus as He overturns the tables of the tax collectors in God’s temple in Jerusalem is depicted authoritatively, palpably, and honestly. The sheer exasperation of Jesus is on full display, as He is angered by the desecration of God’s house by greed and selfishness. Still, in the thick of this pandemonium is Mary. She feels, quite understandably, uneasy and confused. Unlike Peter, who pushes and shoves his way through the rioting crowd, Mary makes a half-hearted attempt to make her way to Jesus. She ultimately escapes the chaos, hiding in an alleyway as the situation settles down. This shows a layer of vulnerability to Mary’s character. Her loyalty and faithfulness have been well-noted in other areas of the story, but this serves to demonstrate that she still has some personal doubts and apprehensions to overcome, regarding her following of Jesus.
As one would expect, the other most prominently poignant moment is the crucifixion. Christians view this event, along with the following resurrection, as the most pivotal juncture in human history, and Phoenix’s portrayal is absolutely riveting. The anguish, agony, and torment felt by Jesus are tangibly presented in Phoenix’s performance. It is a brutal scene to watch, but one that is necessary to adequately articulate the narrative. Mary, along with all of the other disciples, are heartbroken by the suffering and extreme misery felt by Jesus. Yet, Mary holds onto the promises made by Jesus. As the others lose hope and fall into utter despair, Mary remains devoted to Jesus’s previous assurances. She is eventually rewarded for her faith, as the first person to see Jesus in the flesh after rising from the dead. Unfortunately, even as she spreads this hopeful news to Peter and the other followers of Jesus, she is disregarded and brushed aside as a dishonest, fraudulent woman. The disciples only truly believe when they see Jesus for themselves. This is the perfect summation of the tragic distortion of Mary’s character. She was almost universally regarded as sinful, deceitful, and powerless, when she was in reality the embodiment of resilience, loyalty, and humanity.
As a period drama, the technical elements comprising the film are crucial to the final product. Incredibly detailed and ornate recreations of the ancient Middle East are established by the production design crew (headed by 2019 Oscar nominee Fiona Crombie), the set decorators (Lynne Huitson and Glen W. Johnson), and the art directors (Cristina Onori and Saverio Sammali). The costume design (Jacqueline Durran), as well as the hair and makeup (Marese Langan), are exquisitely crafted, perfectly complementing the rest of the production detail. Gorgeous cinematography from DP Greig Frasar incorporates a healthy variety of sweeping, expansive wide shots, and penetrating, visceral close-ups in some of the more emotionally intense scenes. There is expertly handled visual storytelling done by way of the cinematography, showing the progression of Mary’s character from shaky and unstable, to upright and bold. Conversely, Jesus’s character has the exact opposite arc, from the fearless leader to the tortured soul on the cross before coming full circle back to His original commanding presence after His resurrection. The dazzlingly brilliant musical score from Hildur Guonadóttir and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson serves as a magnificent companion to this story of extraordinary proportions. Additionally, sound designer and supervising sound editor Robert Mackenzie provides even more depth and authenticity, from the peaceful sounds of the crashing waves of the Galilee Sea, to the barbaric chaos of the crucifixion. Technically, the entire film feels genuine and legitimate, ensuring an enthralling cinematic product.
Of course, the aforementioned pacing issues and inconsistent acting slightly negate from the overall impression of the film, but its substantial themes of humanity, society, and faith, as well as its technical ingenuity, may yet be enough to please viewers from all walks of life. Mary Magdalene is far from a popcorn flick to escape everyday life, but those looking for a challenging, thought-provoking piece of cinema should definitely find something to appreciate in this film.
In theaters April 12th, 2019.
Available on digital and VOD April 19th, 2019.
For more information, head to the official Mary Magdalene website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.