Mary Magdalene movie review: the Gospel of Mary

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.
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)
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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.

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.

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Bluejay
Bluejay
Fri, Mar 16, 2018 5:24pm

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.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Bluejay
Fri, Mar 16, 2018 7:26pm

I wish they’d cast Middle Eastern actors

Yes, that might have been nice.

pterodactyl
pterodactyl
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sat, Mar 17, 2018 9:06am

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.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  pterodactyl
Sat, Mar 17, 2018 9:07am

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

Daniel
Daniel
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Mar 27, 2018 7:06am

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
Danielm80
reply to  Daniel
Tue, Mar 27, 2018 10:11am

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
RogerBW
reply to  Danielm80
Tue, Mar 27, 2018 11:06am

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

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Daniel
Tue, Mar 27, 2018 11:54am

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
Bluejay
reply to  Daniel
Tue, Mar 27, 2018 12:22pm

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.

pterodactyl
pterodactyl
Fri, Mar 16, 2018 5:58pm

“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
Danielm80
reply to  pterodactyl
Fri, Mar 16, 2018 6:09pm

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.

pterodactyl
pterodactyl
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Fri, Mar 16, 2018 8:22pm

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.”

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  pterodactyl
Sat, Mar 17, 2018 9:05am

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.

pterodactyl
pterodactyl
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sat, Mar 17, 2018 9:07am

others can judge for themselves if you have answered the question

pterodactyl
pterodactyl
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Fri, Mar 16, 2018 8:25pm

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.”

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  pterodactyl
Sat, Mar 17, 2018 9:05am

I am not having this discussion with you.

pterodactyl
pterodactyl
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sat, Mar 17, 2018 9:07am

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

Arthur
Arthur
reply to  pterodactyl
Sat, Mar 17, 2018 12:28am

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
pterodactyl
reply to  Arthur
Sat, Mar 17, 2018 8:52am

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?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  pterodactyl
Sat, Mar 17, 2018 9:05am

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.

James Middleton
James Middleton
Fri, Mar 16, 2018 7:22pm

“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!

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  James Middleton
Fri, Mar 16, 2018 7:32pm

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
pterodactyl
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sat, Mar 17, 2018 8:56am

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.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  pterodactyl
Sat, Mar 17, 2018 9:06am

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

pterodactyl
pterodactyl
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sat, Mar 17, 2018 9:08am

others can judge for themselves

Dr. Rocketscience
Dr. Rocketscience
reply to  pterodactyl
Sat, Mar 17, 2018 3:52pm

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.

Ruthless Goat
reply to  James Middleton
Wed, Mar 21, 2018 6:28pm

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.

Rod Ribeiro
Rod Ribeiro
reply to  James Middleton
Mon, Mar 26, 2018 1:50am

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

S

MinstrelOfC
MinstrelOfC
Thu, Mar 22, 2018 11:14pm

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

Bluejay
Bluejay
Tue, Mar 27, 2018 2:48pm

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
Jack
Sat, Mar 31, 2018 3:49pm

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.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Jack
Sun, Apr 01, 2018 11:22am

I’ll review it soon.

Slartibartfast
Sun, Jul 01, 2018 9:46pm

I found this review, searching for a reason to see, yet again, another “brave” and “bold” movie about Something history knows very little about. Like Interstellar, the core of the plot is missing – “what’s inside the black hole?”

Billions of people, for 2,000+ years, have lived and died over the divinity of the man the Roman Historian called “Crestos.” That is what is missing, and frankly, what no movie has ever achieved. The closest that this ideal comes to is Ben Hur, but there is still great mystery, unexplained. You’re supposed to just know.

Just Knowing is also the crutch on which this very good movie depends. No facts – you just have to understand that women are victims in a patriarchal society.

With that as the jumping off ethos, we comfortably forget the true concept of the “Jesus Event,” and wander happily in the fields of “What If.”

The photography is amazing as is the acting of Ejiofor and Phoenix. Oddly, the feminist portrayal of Mariamme Magdala (which is acted, I assume, exactly as the director wished) is peculiarly 2½-Diminesional – not quite 3D, but good enough to satisfy the Feminist “believers”.

What is even more peculiar is that there is a large body of scholarly work which, while eschewing the apochryphal Gospel of Mary, asks important questions about how the 2nd century treated women, after Paul dumped on them. There is little doubt among honest scholars, that Jesus’ retinue contained women who were treated as equals, and Mariamme was definitely one. A true Female desciple.

Here’s where the trouble starts. This movie representation slips into a parody of real feminism – a plastic copy – a religious statuette of Feminism. If one took away the names and simply looked at it from a 1stC AD point of view, the woman would have been stoned for her uppity behavior, even after acceptance of the Head Dude.

No. It’s far from a bad movie and very close to a great one. Worth viewing, but hardly a de facto defense of a historical event.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Slartibartfast
Mon, Jul 02, 2018 7:57pm

Dude is here to tell us what real feminism is, and what’s a parody, and that the patriarchy and misogyny are things that must be taken on faith, like belief in a supernatural deity.

Cool story, bro.

Slartibartfast
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Jul 03, 2018 4:45am

Yes, but that’s only a part of what I said. Are you actually saying that a male cannot define a term, simply because of his sex?

But you also intimate that the definition of misogyny hasn’t changed over time, which is a signal of two-dimensional thinking. Can you define feminism – I mean, in a meaningful sentence? And what about your poorly hidden sarcasm about a Deity you’ve refused to meet? These are not markers of a logician, or even an open mind.

I’d love to get you in front of witnesses for real debate. At least we could find out if you’re a real thinker, or just another vacuous repeater of catchwords and clichés. You sound like one of my film students who is surprised at a C grade for lazy thinking.

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  Slartibartfast
Tue, Jul 03, 2018 12:15pm

You sound like one of my film students who is surprised at a C grade for lazy thinking.

Ah, you must be on the faculty at the University of Adelaide.
comment image

I’d love to get you in front of witnesses for real debate.

Oh dear. This is not a good look on you.

https://whatever.scalzi.com/2013/09/16/speech-conversation-debate-engagement-communication/

Slartibartfast
reply to  Bluejay
Thu, Jul 05, 2018 1:35am

If you could, would you mind telling what’s so bad about UA? I have a fondness for Aussies, but I can’t tell if your comment is sarcasm directed toward me or toward the school and me, or toward the reviewer, the school, and not me.. see where this is going? BTW, is that a badger sticking out of the only male’s neck? Also, the url you gave isn’t new, but it’s certainly mostly true. I’m retired now, but I have colleagues who tell me I got out in time. They’re telling me the inmates are running the prison, now.. so, there’s that..

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Slartibartfast
Tue, Jul 17, 2018 3:26pm

I’d love to get you in front of witnesses for real debate.

Hahahahahahahahahaha.

Haha.

Melchekzanikhar
Melchekzanikhar
Thu, Nov 15, 2018 2:27am

I don’t even know how to begin, let alone proceed with and finish my comment, because a) I am all for any (called for) revisionism of any story; b) I am a feminist; c) I like many, maybe even most, of your reviews…
Well, anyhow, I went to see this film because of your unqualified praise (except for the meager admittance in the comments section that casting Middle Eastern actors “might have been nice”) lavished upon it. And all I’ve got from that was an unqualified disappointment: no “revisionism”, no “feminism”, not even the magnificent production-values or ever-reliable Mara Rooney and Joaquin Phoenix, let alone your review, could save the hogwash of the script (mainly the artificial dialogue, incorporating nowadays English [read: American] phrases mixed with solemn Jewish (?) prayers, which made any attempt at “suspense-of-disbelief” literally impossible) can justify this, all in all, lame undertaking.

Frank O'Brien
Frank O'Brien
Sun, Aug 16, 2020 4:09pm

If you want the real story of Mary of Magdala, of Bethany and of Jesus you’ll find it in Maria Valtorta’s ‘The Poem of the Man God.’

Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
Sun, Aug 16, 2020 4:09pm

Wow! The same year you see this flick, you choose to go to Rome? For Christmas? In time for midnight mass? And admit as much on Twitter?

Strange things are happening in this world, indeed…

Bluejay
Bluejay
Sun, Aug 16, 2020 4:03pm

Finally saw this, and I entirely agree with your review. Mara and Phoenix are just fantastic. Tahar Rahim is great, and his Judas has a heartbreakingly human motivation that I haven’t seen in any other versions of the character. A quietly powerful, deeply moving film that’s going to stay with me; so glad I saw this.