by Thomas Harris
The well-worn tale of the antics and good deeds of Jesus Christ and his merry band of men is a tale as old as time. Every decade or so, since narrative cinema came about, filmmakers have felt it necessary to remind those of Jesus’ sacrifice. So now, in 2017, amidst the golden age of soulless, amateur films aimed at the religious market and some 13 years after Mel Gibson’s frankly anti-Semitic Passion of the Christ, comes Mary Magdalene, a mildly revisionist retread with focus on the titular Mary.
Rooney Mara is Mary Magdalene, who lives a life devoted to Judaism and almost obsessive hard work. She’s a saint amongst her family, acting as midwife to a young girl struggling to give birth. But her stubbornness not to marry – “there’s a demon inside of you,” – forces the patriarchs of the family to attempt to exorcise her.
Come forward Jesus (a fantastic Joaquin Phoenix) who ignites a passion in Mary. They swiftly leave, abandoning Mary’s family in order to help those suffering under the rule of the Romans. Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is unenthused, questioning the motives of Mary whilst Judas (Tahar Rahim) opens his arms; the more the merrier.
In shifting the gaze from Jesus to Mary, Davis has – almost – created a feminist celebration of a biblical figure. In fact, text on the screen prior to the credits rolling acts as a reminder that the “Mary Magdalene was a prostitute,” was born out of Pope Gregory in the 6th century. And Davis occasionally succeeds. Mara’s Mary is framed as a figure of truth. Mary’s understanding of Jesus waters down the machismo of those that surround Jesus.
Mara too is fantastic, carrying herself with a quiet intensity, her panic only ever moral and internal. Phoenix too, in a role that may read as a punch line in an SNL sketch, is regal and disciplined, so surprising he is, it begs the question as to why it’s taken so long for Phoenix as Jesus to come to fruition. This leaves the meatiest roles to Rahim and Ejiofor. Rahim, with his boyish face, uses this to the best of his ability. His Judas is hopeful if gullible and Rahim is brilliantly tortured. Same with Ejiofor, who acts as the audience’s moral compass.
It’s a shame then that Davis plays it all so safe. It lacks the anarchic dismantlement of The Last Temptation of Christ and desperately needs an injection of something even mildly fresh. To retell a story so faithfully demands something new, and Davis never gives us that.
Even in framing the story through the eyes of Mary, he tries little. The fictitious “truth” of her as a prostitute would give wealth to the story, but she is only ever saintly.
There’s a tragedy that echoes and murmurs throughout with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score acting as tragic reminder of his recent passing. It’s a dizzying mix of electronic drones and analogue strings. The film itself may lack freshness, but its score is something stunning.
Mary Magdalene is well-intentioned and performed with uniform intent and intensity. It’s a shame it feels only ever unnecessary.
Mary Magdalene is out in cinemas 16th March