I thought that Good Friday seemed like an appropriate day to see this film for a second time. And even with this additional viewing, I’m not sure why it both haunts and moves me so much. Particularly since I find so much wrong with it.
If Mel Gibson’s triumphant The Passion of the Christ was a bludgeoning, blood-and-guts, in-your-face experience, from which it was impossible to walk away unshaken, then director Garth Davis’s Mary Magdalene, with a screenplay by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, comes across at times as a series of silent, still-life portraits.
It seems almost like a meditation on that period.
When you stop to think about it – and no matter what your religious beliefs are – it is a truly remarkable thing that we are still telling and reinterpreting the events that surrounded Jesus Christ and his Apostles 2,000 years ago.
And in this version of events the people were very real to me indeed.
I got a true sense of what they ate; how their society worked; what they believed; what their geographic location was. And for such a low-key film I walked away on both occasions filled with sheer exhilaration. If anything, I got far more out of seeing it a second time.
The Magdalene is of course one lady that has had a hard time of it in Biblical studies. Because of the conflation of several women of that name she became associated, courtesy of Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century, with the Mary who was a ‘fallen woman’; and so somewhere along the line has entered history as a prostitute, something that there is no evidence at for.
When we first meet her in the town of Magdala, she is a hard-working woman and part-time midwife. In fact, when she hears that there is a prophet by the name of Jesus who has been preaching every day, she remarks that it must be nice to have so much time on your hands. She is very much her own person, without – I felt – the modern-day feminist aspect being rammed down our throats.
Rooney Mara is really rather wonderful in the part of the Magdalene. She has a quality of stillness and talent for observing that we remember from a very different role, that of Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
In fact, she is a perfect counterpoint to Joaquin Phoenix’s Christ, who turns more and more to her for advice, much to the disquiet of the Apostle Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor). And with the other Apostles only briefly sketched in (as indeed they are with the texts of the New Testaments themselves), only the rather sweet and slightly lost Judas (Tahar Rahim) gets a chance to stand out.
Peter is for war against the Romans; Judas is content that he has been assured that he will meet his wife and daughter again. Both, in their way, are wrong and misunderstand what Christ is telling them.
Mary was present at the most pivotal moments in Christ’s life; and this is something that Peter – whilst admiring Mary – almost seems to blame her for.
“You weakened us”, he tells her after the crucifixion; “you weakened him.”
There is so much to enjoy here: those long shots, with a landscape that is shown in palettes of washed-out greens and grays and browns, for example; and a curious thing for me – -and possibly unintentional – is how we see Mary as almost a high priestess in her own right, something that certain commentators have taken her to be.
Seeing her taking part in baptizing new followers is strangely compelling.
For me, she is a woman who has suddenly been granted freedom from a patriarchal society that would see her wed to a man she doesn’t love. And this is symbolized in a lovely moment when she pushes aside the sight-hindering fishing net that she is looking through to suddenly see clearly.
Of course, she and Jesus love one another. Could they have been in love? It certainly comes across as possible.
The high point of Mary Magdalene to my mind is in a wonderful scene where Mary, the mother of Jesus, speaks openly to Mary, his follower.
“I always knew he was never entirely mine”, the mother tells her. “If you love him then you must be prepared to lose him.”
On both occasion that I’ve seen this, I wept. It is heartbreakingly real.
Unfortunately I was less than taken with the very flat entrance into Jerusalem and in particular with the famous episode in the Temple, where Jesus denounced the priests and the moneylenders. Of course, I’m aware that we take ourselves into these scenes, but I had really wanted him to run amok here. And instead, as played by Phoenix, he comes across as very weak indeed, as he does elsewhere. Whatever your views on religion, this was a man who took on not only the might of the organised religion of his day, but also that of the Roman Empire. And nothing here suggests this.
In the film’s closing scenes, it appears to say that whilst the teachings Christ himself are as important and relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago, there is really nothing to suggest that Jesus either envisioned or would have wanted the Vatican to come into existence.
In his enthralling history of the Popes through the ages – Vicars of Christ – Peter de Rosa asked:
“If Peter came back as a pilgrim, how would he judge what goes on in the Vatican by the standards of the Gospel?”
It’s a question I often ask myself, substituting Jesus for Peter. How would the Christ react to the Vatican? With a certain amount of anger and disgust, I would think.
Mary Magdalene is an important film and I’m very glad to have seen it; but I can’t help feeling that it could have been so much more.