“Dress more like the Virgin and less like the Magdalene.”
That’s something my grandmother always used to tell me and my sisters. That’s because, Mary Magdalene — who is described in the Gospels as being a woman who traveled with and supported Jesus — is often mistaken for being the “sinful woman” who scandalized Simon the Leper by anointing Jesus’s feet. As such, there’s a tradition that Mary Magdalene was either a former prostitute or, at the very least, a formerly promiscuous woman who repented and followed Jesus. That said, there’s nothing in the canonical gospels that supports that tradition and, in all probability, the sinful woman was another Mary, Mary of Bethany. In 1969, Pope Paul VI officially removed all reference to Mary Magdalene being the sinful woman but it’s still fairly common for Mary Magdalene to be portrayed as being a former prostitute.
Mary Magdalene, which was released briefly in theaters last year, attempts to set the record straight by imagining a different backstory for Mary Magdalene. In fact, the whole theme of this movie seems to be, “See? She wasn’t a prostitute!” And that’s fine except, while watching the movie, I really had to wonder if it was somehow an improvement to instead portray her as being the most boring person in Judea. Watching the film, one gets the feeling that the filmmakers were so proud of themselves for making Mary Magdalene a feminist that it didn’t occur to them that they might also want to make her an interesting character as well.
In this movie, Mary Magdalene (played by a dependably dull Rooney Mara) is a young Jewish woman who rebels against the wishes of her family and refuses to enter into an arranged marriage with Ephraim (Tzachi Halevy) and who instead decides to follow a preacher named Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix). As portrayed in this movie, Jesus is charismatic but often moody, preaching a good message (though the film seems to interpret that message as mostly being vague Gnostic liberalism) while getting annoyed with almost everyone around him. Jesus often seems to be exhausted by his followers, especially Judas (Tahar Rahim) who is way too eager for Jesus to lead an armed uprising against the forces of the Roman Empire. Meanwhile, Jesus’s main disciple, Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), often finds himself growing jealous of Mary Magdalene and the trust that builds between her and Jesus. While this film does not go the Jesus Christ Superstar route of portraying them as being a couple, it also leaves little doubt that Mary Magdalene, who is defying not just Rome but also the entire patriarchy, understands Jesus and his teachings in a way that the male disciples never will.
As a film, Mary Magalene takes itself and its story very seriously and it generally eshews the type of grandeur that one might expect from a biblical epic. That low-key approach may be historically accurate but it’s not much fun to watch and, with a running time of 120 minutes, the action just kind of plods along. Rooney Mara can give a good performance when she has the right material but here, she’s often just reduced to just wanly staring off into the distance.
As for Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus …. well, the casting actually works better than you might think. Phoenix plays Jesus as being a passionate leader who is haunted by his destiny. With his long hair and his scruffy beard, Phoenix is not a glamorous Jesus but he’s very much a credible one. The film is probably at its best in the scene where Jesus witnesses the money changers in the temple. Rather than playing Jesus as being simply enraged, Phoenix plays him as being deeply disappointed. One gets the feeling that he’s looking at what is happening in his father’s house and he’s thinking, “These are the people I’m supposed to sacrifice my life to save?”
Mary Magdalene is one of those films that took forever to actually show up in theaters. The Weinstein Company was originally set to release the film in early 2017 but the release was pushed back to 2018, for reasons that have never been particularly clear. Eventually the Weinstein Company pulled out of distributing the film and, for that, I’m thankful. The idea of any film about Jesus carrying the Harvey Weinstein name is just too terrible to think about. The film was then picked up by IFC, who gave it a perfunctory release in 2019.
It’s a flawed film, even though it’s heart may be in the right place. The approach that it takes is just too low-key to be consistently interesting. Sometimes, bigger is better.