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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Mary Magdalene movie review: the Gospel of Mary

Mary Magdalene green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
A fiercely feminist and proudly revisionist historical drama that offers a powerful and much-needed rebuke to modern Christianity. Enrapturingly beautiful and intensely emotional.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast
I’m “biast” (con): not a fan of “faith-based” movies
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, female screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

Why didn’t Jesus have any female Apostles? Well, he kinda did, in Mary Magdalene — technically, Mary of Magdala, the small village in Galilee she was from (maybe); or Mary the Magdalene — who in the contradictory books of the New Testament is either the only person to witness or one of a group of women to witness Jesus’ resurrection. So, why isn’t there a Gospel of Mary? Well, there kinda is, though it was only rediscovered in the late 19th century and is considered to belong to the Apocrypha, and not part of the accepted canon of the Bible. So why wasn’t Mary’s testimony considered appropriate to be included in the “official” Scriptures from way back when?

Well, she was a woman, wasn’t she, and what do women know? What are women even for? Medieval scholars declared that surely Mary was a prostitute — 2016’s Biblical drama Risen perpetuated this notion — making the Bible cultural ground zero for the horrific “Madonna-whore” dichotomy to describe women. More recent, and kinder, approaches to Mary Magdalene have decided that maybe she was instead Jesus’ wife and the mother of his children… but this really isn’t much better: If she’s not a prostitute, she must be a wife? Argh.

The crazy preacher guy who’s been wandering around telling people to be nice to one another...

The crazy preacher guy who’s been wandering around telling people to be nice to one another…

All of that misogynistic crap gets thrown away in the fiercely feminist and proudly revisionist Mary Magdalene, which reimagines Mary (a glorious Rooney Mara: Kubo and the Two Strings, Carol) as a woman who cannot make herself fit into the expectations that constrain her gender: she “shames” her family by refusing to marry the man they’ve picked out for her; she has “longings” and “unhappiness” that she cannot even identify. She is suffering from a Roman-era feminine mystique… and she finds meaning and purpose, quite unexpectedly even to herself, as a follower of that charismatic preacher who’s been roaming the land (Joaquin Phoenix [Irrational Man, Her], who might be my favorite onscreen Jesus ever). Forget that junk in the Bible about Mary being possessed by demons that Jesus cast out of her: that nonsense gets treated here with the same disdain that all diagnoses of women as “crazy” or “evil” for refusing to be demeaned and diminished warrant. It’s gently done, though: “There are no demons here,” Jesus soothingly reassures Mary; there’s nothing wrong with her. It is, we are given to presume, the first time a man has treated her with the same empathy and kindness we have seen her be free with toward others.

This feels like a realistic depiction of the first-century Middle East, and its people (including Jesus) feel like real flesh-and-blood people.
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With his second feature — his first was the wonderful Lion — director Garth Davis offers not only a rare woman’s perspective on the Jesus story, but a very humanist, very grounded take on it as well. This feels like a realistic depiction of the first-century Middle East, and its people (including Jesus) feel like real flesh-and-blood people: they are warm and cruel, funny and mean, complicated and contradictory. The script by Helen Edmundson (her feature debut) and Philippa Goslett (Little Ashes), lends no sense of grand portent to the story: no one here has any idea that the future is watching, which is as it should be yet isn’t a quality that most Bible movies embrace. (The name “Jesus” isn’t even mentioned at all until quite far into the film, long after we’ve actually met him, when Mary does. He’s merely “the healer” or “the rabbi.” We understand why so many people are in love with him, but it’s not because of the dogwhistle his name has become today.) With gorgeous, luminous cinematography by Greig Fraser (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Foxcatcher) and terrific performances all around — the cast also includes Chiwetel Ejiofor (Doctor Strange, Triple 9) as Peter and Tahar Rahim (Grand Central, The Past) as Judas — this can be seen as simply a historical drama, one that is enrapturingly beautiful and intensely emotional. The very few scenes that could be said to depict “miracles” don’t necessarily have to be seen as anything supernatural: they could be metaphors or even misinterpretations of naturalistic events. Mary Magdalene is so far from the cheesy panto that Bible movies typically are that it doesn’t deserve to be classed with the rest of them.

Jesus’ homeboys do not like the new chick who’s been hanging out with them.

Jesus’ homeboys do not like the new chick who’s been hanging out with them.

That said, Mary Magdalene also offers a powerful and much-needed rebuke to how modern Christianity has strayed far from the messages of its roots. Whether you’re a believer or not — and I certainly am not — there is no denying that the story of Jesus is a foundational one for our culture, one that has had and continues to have an enormous impact on all of us, of all faiths and of none. And the way it is being used today, especially but not only in America, as a way to bully and shame, as a stamp of approval to get rich and ignore the poor– oof. It’s not only that the Jesus of this movie — a rabble-rousing, anti-establishment hippie — would not approve, though he wouldn’t. Mary Magdalene also suggests that because Mary’s gospel was sidelined — oh, how Peter here scoffs at her presence among the Apostles, at her influence on Jesus, on her audacity to contradict Peter’s way of carrying on Jesus’ teachings — Christianity went down a twisted path that Jesus absolutely did not intend, and would not like. Mary — a woman! — was a true prophet of Jesus, Mary Magdalene would like us to know. Maybe the only one.

The compassion, the empathy, the kindness on display here, a sort of ongoing conversation between Mary and Jesus and spreading outward from there, is intensely moving. For the first time ever, I believed in Jesus. Only onscreen, and only like I believe in Frodo and Luke Skywalker and Captain America, but still.


The US release of this film is currently being “held hostage,” as Indiewire puts it, by the collapse of The Weinstein Company. There’s no telling when — or even if — it will ever make it to screens in North America, which is a shame, because America needs to see this movie.


Click here for my ranking of this and 2018’s other theatrical releases.


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Mary Magdalene (2018) | directed by Garth Davis
UK/Ire release: Mar 16 2018

BBFC: rated 12A (bloody images)

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card (now updated for 2017’s trolls!) you might want to reconsider.

  • Bluejay

    Wow. This sounds like all kinds of wonderful. As an atheist — and someone who’s always believed that the historical Jesus would be appalled at what’s been done in his name — I’m absolutely eager to see this.

    If the film treats its story as a realistic, historical drama with “real flesh-and-blood people,” rather than heightened myth, then I wish they’d cast Middle Eastern actors. Though I’m sure Mara, Phoenix, and Ejiofor give great performances.

    The TWC situation sucks. Hope it gets resolved soon and the movie finds its way here, before President Pence establishes the Department of Christian Culture and its film approval division.

  • pterodactyl

    “All of that misogynistic crap gets thrown away in the fiercely feminist and proudly revisionist Mary Magdalene, which reimagines Mary …as a woman who cannot make herself fit into the expectations that constrain her gender:”

    Regarding her being constrained – imagine her living in modern Iran, where some true feminists recently took off their veils – only to be ignored by Western ‘feminists’.

  • Danielm80

    Y’know, it occurs to me that The Straw Man sounds like the name of a horror film. The Straw Feminist, on the other hand, would be a very different sort of movie.

  • James Middleton

    “Why didn’t Jesus have any female Apostles?” – Simple answer, the 12 men represent the 12 sons/tribes of Israel. It is a Jewish thing. Yeshua did have a great many women disciples. They were very close to Him and He treated them with levels of respect that were considered shocking in His day.

    “who in the contradictory books of the New Testament” – I have read list, after list of so-called contradictory passages in the New Testament. I think I have only found one that stands up to critical scrutiny. In one Gospel, Yeshua visited town A first, in another, town B first. Blaa, the kind of things that creep into a narrative naturally when human eye witnesses are involved.

    “So, why isn’t there a Gospel of Mary? Well, there kinda is” – Have you ever read it? It doesn’t really make a lot of sense and it is considered to be fake. The gospel of Mary was not written by Mary Magdalene and comes from the 2nd century.

    “Well, she was a woman, wasn’t she, and what do women know?” A great deal, according to Yeshua. John 4:4–42

    “A fiercely feminist and proudly revisionist historical drama that offers a powerful and much-needed rebuke to modern Christianity” – Really? I have been to a great many churches of different denominations. I don’t see much in the way of inequality. Not many Christian women call themselves Feminists, because of it’s links to abortion and man-hate. Now, please step off you Atheist soap box and just review the film!

  • I wish they’d cast Middle Eastern actors

    Yes, that might have been nice.

  • I have been to a great many churches of different denominations. I don’t see much in the way of inequality.

    Hey, everybody! White dude says everything looks peachy keen to him! We can all relax. Inequality is over.

  • pterodactyl

    http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/iran-hijab-protests-headscarf-take-off-islam-muslims-middle-east-western-liberals-a8248106.html

    QUOTE:
    “Why won’t western feminists support the woman arrested for taking off her hijab in Iran? It doesn’t make you Islamophobic

    Where is the outcry from the left when a female protestor in Iran is locked up for two years for daring to take off the head-covering she is forced to wear?

    Shappi Khorsandi @ShappiKhorsandi Friday 9 March 2018 16:15 GMT”
    ============================================
    MaryAnn – this woman knows what she is talking about – belatedly there are a few voices, but I would not class it as an outcry, and nothing but nothing compared with the frenzy of outrage at minor transgressions of famous white males from years ago.

    I think the top rated buzzfeed comment from your link sums it up:

    “Go Siame Finally Buzzfeed gets it. The Hijab is a grotesquely offensive religious garment and to CHOOSE to wear it is an insult to the hundreds of millions of Muslim women who have it forced on them by governments and family members.”

  • pterodactyl

    MaryAnn – just to confirm – do you agree with this comment: on the buzzfeed link by Go Siame:
    (and note the word ‘finally’)

    “Finally Buzzfeed gets it. The Hijab is a grotesquely offensive religious garment and to CHOOSE to wear it is an insult to the hundreds of millions of Muslim women who have it forced on them by governments and family members.”

  • Arthur

    This film is about a period that predates Islam by six centuries. A critique of modern Islam is beside the point, although modern Islam seems to be your only focus.

  • pterodactyl

    I think my comments are relevant to the subject of feminism in this film, and the oppression of women both then and now. I am saying it is worse today, and the top buzzfeed comment explains why and so does Shappi Khorsandi. Others can judge for themselves if this is relevant to a film where the reviewer talks about (a) religion (b) oppression of women (c) feminism. So I repeat – why are those who call themselves ‘feminists’ not making a huge outcry about it, like they did about the ‘metoo’ thing?

  • pterodactyl

    James Middleton makes some thoughtful and interesting comments that contribute to the debate. Contrast this with your reply, which is completely argument-free, and just consists of mockery.

  • So sorry we feminists aren’t doing feminism to your satisfaction. Or you could read this:

    “’Those women are more oppressed’ is a terrible argument against feminism”
    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/04/international-women-oppression-feminism

    But pretty much it’s your characterization that #MeToo and #TimesUp are about “minor transgressions” that makes you irrelevant to this discussion.

  • I am not having this discussion with you.

  • I think my comments are relevant to the subject of feminism in this film, and the oppression of women both then and now.

    It really isn’t.

  • No, he does not make any “thoughtful and interesting comments,” nor does he contribute to any debate.

  • pterodactyl

    I am not sure what you mean here. The disciples seemed pretty mixed race to me, including two black ones. I did not have a problem with this personally, as Jesus’ message was for all races.

  • Then they could have cast a Middle Eastern actor as Jesus.

  • pterodactyl

    others can judge for themselves if you have answered the question

  • pterodactyl

    fair enough, at least you are honest enough to say so

  • pterodactyl

    others can judge for themselves

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    OK.

    He does not make any good points. He’s here to trash strawman versions for “feminists” and “atheists”.

    You’re here to ride his dick for it.

  • You find only one of the 195 or so contradictions that stand up to scrutiny? Apparently you see only what you want to see. No inequality of women in churches? Guffaw. You also break the irony meter when you criticize a Bible book to be “fake”. They are ALL fake, edited embellishments of favorite stories and claims from earlier mythologies. The treatment of women by all the Abrahamic religions simply cannot be defended. They wouldn’t even allow them to participate in a stoning without a fake beard.

  • MinstrelOfC

    Thanks for this review – I’ll have to keep an eye out for this one!

  • Rod Ribeiro

    Now, please step off you Atheist soap box and just review the film!

    S

  • Daniel

    You’re a moron. How the fuck can you call yourself a film critic when your criticism boils down to: they should’ve had middle eastern actors. I don’t care how, where or when, just GET SOME DAMN MIDDLE EASTERNS IN THERE, CAUSE I’M A WHITE WOMAN AND DAMN IT I’M GUILTY!!! You poor, poor, pathetic excuse for a critic.

  • Danielm80

    You might want to read her review—which barely mentions the nationality of the actors—rather than just responding to one or two sentences in the comment section.

  • RogerBW

    But that would be more difficult than basic pattern recognition and prepared response.

  • You seem great.

    I don’t care how, where or when, just GET SOME DAMN MIDDLE EASTERNS IN THERE, CAUSE I’M A WHITE WOMAN AND DAMN IT I’M GUILTY!!!

    Citations needed.

  • Bluejay

    As others have pointed out: you clearly haven’t read her actual review. But even if she’d said what you think she said, your ridiculously hostile response isn’t very Christian of you. Go dig out your Bible and reread Luke 6:31 and John 13:34 and learn to be a better human being.

  • Bluejay

    Joaquin Phoenix … who might be my favorite onscreen Jesus ever

    I look forward to seeing his take. But Rock Jesus is still Best Jesus. :-)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QW2Wh1OZBA

  • Jack

    On another Joaquin Phoenix-related note, I’m so sad to read that you disliked “You Were Never Really Here” on your current ranking of 2018’s movies. I was terribly excited to see a bracing attack on the sex slave trade that the critics raved about and was written and directed by a woman, no less. I suppose something about the male savior aspect did it in for you.

  • I’ll review it soon.

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