I’m “biast” (con): not a fan of “faith-based” movies
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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.
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.
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.
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.