The weekend of Easter and Passover is a veritable smorgasbord of religious programming each year. Since 1973, ABC devotes five or so hours of Saturday night airtime to The Ten Commandments. Elsewhere on cable, Turner Classic Movies aired Barabbas, the 1961 epic starring Anthony Quinn, and the 1959 version of Ben-Hur was floating around PBS. In theaters there was Breakthrough (which Mike Redmond so thoroughly broke down for us) and an animated movie about Noah’s Ark, I think? I saw the showtimes in my AMC A-List account and kept on scrolling.
All of which is to say, if you wanted to throw your money or attention toward a crap-ton of Judeo-Christian values this weekend, you had an array of choices. So, it makes sense that IFC Films released Mary Magdalene. This Easter/Passover timing obviously syncs up with the storyline, which ends with Jesus’s death and alleged resurrection, but also: Why is this movie?
I put it that bluntly because Mary Magdalene, while committed to offering the titular woman’s perspective on Jesus of Nazareth (Joaquin Phoenix) and what his teachings and life meant to her, presents mostly the same overall ideas and understandings about Christianity with which we’re already familiar. Although the film is a defense of Mary (Rooney Mara)—and provides more shading to Jesus’s other apostles, including Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Judas (Tahar Rahim)—I’m not sure its particular method of world-building does much in terms of impact.
It’s not a set-piece-driven bonanza that forgets to develop its characters, like the remake of Ben-Hur starring Richard Harrow and Toby Kebbell. It’s also not one of those mega-church-fueled, obviously partisan offerings like Unplanned, which is more agenda than faith. Mary Magdalene is somewhere in the middle, and maybe that’s why it feels a little out of place—because we’re unused to seeing this sort of Christianity, the kind that actually harkens back to the early messages of the faith, in pop culture or in our real world these days. This film isn’t policy-driven, and maybe that’s what feels strange. Its actual interest is in religion as an act of faith rather than as a way to convince you to vote Republican.
Mary Magdalene begins with Mary herself, who we’ve come to believe was a prostitute who Jesus graciously accepted into his midst; the movie rejects that narrative from the jump. Instead, co-writers Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett present Mary as a woman in her mid to late 20s, living in the small town of Magdala, upon the Sea of Galilee, with her older brother and father. She has tight bonds with the village’s other women, and she’s strong and calming and trusted. However, she is passionate about her Jewish faith, so much so that it makes the men in her life uncomfortable. That much belief is reserved for men, and coupled with her outspokenness and her refusal to marry, Mary is spurned by her family—the men of whom are convinced she’s been possessed by a demon, and try to drown her as a means of exorcism.
So, things are bad! Lonely and alone, Mary is unsure of her role in her community, until she hears talk of a healer and spiritual leader, a man named Jesus, who has been performing what seem to be miracles on his way to Jerusalem. And when Jesus arrived in Magdala, Mary is immediately drawn to him, desperate to speak with someone who may understand what she is feeling, “my thoughts, my longing, my unhappiness,” and her desire “to know God.” What she says connects with Jesus, and when he leaves Magdala, Mary leaves her family behind and joins him, the first woman in his group of male apostles.
But Mary’s status as a woman was a problem in her village, and it’s a problem among Jesus’s followers, too, in particular for Peter, Jesus’s closest adviser. Is he jealous of Mary and her bond with the man they follow? Is he just plain old sexist? Or do Mary’s endless reserves of mercy and grace, her patience and her devotion, highlight something flawed in himself?
Mary Magdalene stays firmly in that “Mary was misunderstood because she was a woman and because men are mostly trash” lane, and so that framework means that Mary is often stuck reacting to other people’s actions instead of driving the narrative herself. We all know Mara is good at stillness (think of her blankness as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or everything she did aside from eating pie in A Ghost Story), and so her Mary is primarily an observer, a woman whose increased confidence steadily pushes her closer to the man she follows and loves. But there’s not much more to Mary than her faith in Jesus, and there’s not much more to Jesus than his concern that his path toward Jerusalem will end in death. Perhaps that sounds belittling, but my point is that the movie’s first and foremost concern is the “Even Jesus’s dudes were sexist” argument, and everything else sort of falls away.
To its credit, the script gives each main character—Mary, Jesus, Peter, Judas—a small amount of doubt and unites them with their shared acknowledgment of it, but the film’s most climactic moments occur in its final scenes, and well, we all know this story. And so while Mary Magdalene is effective in its questioning of our accepted understanding of who Mary was, and so while Phoenix as Jesus strikes the right balance between weary and hopeful, optimistic and self-loathing, the film’s conclusion (“We have the power to lift the people”) is probably only truly resonant if you are of the Christian religion first and foremost. The movie’s exploration into the personal nature of faith and belief is admirable, but I must ask again: Who is Mary Magdalene for? Why tell this story now? Does Jesus always have to be white, though? I’m not sure if the film itself can answer those questions.
Mary Magdalene is in limited release around the U.S.
Image sources (in order of posting): IFC Films, IFC Films, IFC Films