I was looking forward to Mary Magdalene for like a year. I liked Lion, director Garth Davis’s debut film, and Rooney Mara has an outsized place in my heart thanks to her work with David Fincher. But mostly, I love religious films. It’s hard to say that when Pure Flix have made a cottage industry out of crap like God’s Not Dead, films designed to reassure Christians that of course you’re better than everyone else, don’t worry. But great religious films can wrangle with all the messy complications, can be free to be more art than indoctrination. A lot of the best ones are made by atheists – usually Marxists from Italy. Great religious films are great films that focus thematically on something I care intensely about, and they inevitably mean a lot to me.
But you’re always rolling those dice. Christianity is an extremely loaded thing, and it often seems like reviews are written in code: I’m pretty sure Martin Scorsese’s Silence didn’t get its due because secular audiences didn’t or couldn’t fully engage with it and religious audiences found it uncomfortable, challenging viewing, but then it’s hard to know what the reviews would be like if it really was a dull slog.
So I was excited to see Mary Magdalene, even if the reviews were pretty mixed. I love religious films, and I love unorthodox Gospel retellings, and I’m a feminist, and I’d been looking forward to it for like a year.
It was a disappointment. Here’s why.
- The film opens with a title card saying “Judea, 33 CE: The Roman Emperor has appointed a puppet ruler, Herod Antipas, to govern the Jewish people.” Which. I get that you want to place the film in context and maybe someone out there somehow hasn’t put together when and where this film will be set or doesn’t know literally the first thing about first century Palestine. But it feels like an incredibly condescending way to begin, especially when the Roman occupation barely even comes up in the film. But mostly, it seems so absurd to say that a Biblical film takes place in the thirty-third year of the Common Era. I’m a big fan of using CE! But this is like, the one circumstance where it actually is a dumb over-correction. It feels like a joke from Life of Brian.
- Mary Magadalene’s biggest problem is that it’s inert and humourless. It equates reverence with seriousness and has no interest in being irreverent. But it’s incredibly difficult to watch a film that’s that serious, all the time. Even Schindler’s List has the occasional laugh. Mary Magadelene’s suffocating seriousness is especially odd because religion is funny and weird and the best contemporary art about it treats it as such: The Young Pope has a scene where the young Pope tries to see if he can command a kangaroo to jump because he speaks for God; The Last Temptation of Christ is hilarious and it just makes the holy stuff stronger; The Flowers of St. Francis is wacky as hell and it doesn’t for a second dilute its beauty. It would be one thing if Mary Magdalene was good enough to sustain its seriousness, but it’s not. Eventually it’s just boring.
- The character of Mary Magdalene initially seems like a great protagonist: she refuses to get married, and she feels like a woman bursting to escape the tiny corner of the world she’s been allotted. Her family think she’s possessed by a demon, and they try to exorcise her, dunking her in the river and holding her head underwater.
- Then she meets Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix). He can see that Mary isn’t possessed, of course. And she, captivated, decides to follow him.
- The problem is that Jesus isn’t captivating in the least. Phoenix plays him overwhelmed and overburdened. He’s a nervous wreck. He frequently collapses when he uses his healing powers. And that would fine – great, even! Taking the “fully human” part of “fully human, fully divine” seriously – but he can’t seem to thread the needle on also being charismatic. I have no idea why anyone would want to follow this Jesus, let alone give up their entire lives for him.
- The film makes a big deal of Mary being the only one who really understands Jesus’ message, but his message is wishy-washy at best. A big deal is made out of what it isn’t about: it’s not, as Judas hopes, that the dead will rise again in the near future, and it’s not, as Peter decides, about the overthrow of Rome. This makes sense to deal with, because those were both debates among the early Christians. But it’s weird to place such emphasis on it without an equal emphasis on Jesus’ actual, “true” teachings, which we just get glimpses of in a weird translation of the Lord’s Prayer and in Mary’s “correct” interpretations.
- In fact, for a supposedly feminist retelling of the Gospel story, it seems like the film’s version of Christianity is an entirely apolitical one. There’s talk about prayer and changing your heart but little about the poor and changing the world, except from the male disciples, who are wrong. Maybe it’s my little Catholic heart’s obsession with good works talking, but this entirely personal, internal faith is an abdication of responsibility to the world around you – and more importantly, incredibly difficult to render in the visual medium of film in a way that isn’t mind-numbingly boring.
- Even something as foundational as the cleansing of the temple gets made into something apolitical: the way the scene is shot, it emphasises the bloody sacrificing of the animals, not the money-changing, as the source of Jesus’ anger. But why would a first-century Jew be bothered by animal sacrifice? In JD Salinger’s novella Franny and Zooey, Zooey says that if you don’t understand the cleansing of the temple, you don’t understand Jesus Christ. And I’ve carried that around with me for a very long time, because the first time I read Franny and Zooey I didn’t particularly understand the cleansing of the temple, and it has turned out to be a pretty good litmus test.
- “…I’ve never tried, consciously or otherwise, to turn Jesus into St. Francis of Assisi to make him more ‘lovable’—” Zooey continues, “which is exactly what ninety-eight per cent of the Christian world has always insisted on doing.” And in Mary Magdalene, what really sets Jesus off isn’t profiteering, it’s that most Franciscan of concerns: animal welfare.
- This bloodlessness – this gritless, inert seriousness – is best summed up in our protagonist, Mary Magdalene, who is fucking unshakeable. In those early scenes with her family, when she’s a woman straining against the constraints around her, she’s fascinating. But once she meets Jesus, she’s drained of all humanity. She never doubts or struggles; she immediately understands all of Jesus’ teachings. Her only difficulty is male disciples – mainly Peter, to be honest – being rude to her, which, while annoying, never really rises above that. It doesn’t make her question her place among them. It doesn’t make her question Jesus, that he would handpick these men to be his closest companions. It’s a bit of a headache in an otherwise perfect spiritual journey, a kind of perfection Jesus can’t come close to in this film.
- Speaking of Peter: he is such a complete asshole in this. I get what they were going for with that – it makes sense, story-wise, to create conflict between Mary and the male disciples, and Peter in particular – but they went way too far, to the point it was like, why doesn’t Jesus just kick this guy out? He was just unremittingly sexist for no reason, and way more than any of the other disciples. And it would be so easy to write Peter in conflict with Mary in a way that would make sense, because in the Bible, Peter is so over-enthusiastic that he’ll trip over his own feet to try to impress Jesus: saying that of course he would never betray him after Jesus said he was going to be betrayed, to which Jesus says actually you’ll deny me three times tonight, or like, getting crucified upside-down because he wasn’t good enough to die the same way as Jesus even though lots of people get crucified, Peter, what are you doing. So it would be really easy to have Peter just be jealous, because if Jesus gets a new girlfriend he won’t spend every minute with me ☹. But instead he’s like a medieval church figure imported into Biblical times. It’s jarring.
- The basic idea for Mary Magdalene is “actually Mary wasn’t a prostitute, she was one of the apostles,” which, good, great, sure. But it’s like it so desperately wants to steer clear of the “fallen woman” narrative that it over-corrects and makes her flawless. Mary Magdalene in this movie is more like Jesus than Jesus is: she has unparalleled spiritual awareness; she is infinitely generous and kind; she will not put up with bullshit even as she is thoughtful and compassionate in correcting it. She is a woman like us in all but sin.
- I’m not exaggerating: one of Jesus’ most famous lines comes straight out of Mary’s mouth. “The kingdom of God is within you” is a verse I think about often. It pops up in Charlie Chaplin’s speech at the end of The Great Dictator and is the title of Leo Tolstoy’s book about nonviolence. Hearing it come out of Mary’s mouth instead of Jesus’ was pretty weird, especially because it seemed to be done carelessly, without particular purpose. I feel kinda bad for getting hung up on this, but the whole scene is so odd.
- Mary has just seen Jesus for the first time after his death, and she goes to the male disciples to tell them about it. They’re amazed, yadda yadda. But the dichotomy the scene is at pains to set out is between a “true” Christianity of the heart, represented by Mary, and a false, church-based Christianity of the world, represented by Peter. Mary says that the kingdom of God is within us, and we can all be freed by changing what’s in our hearts. Peter says that Jesus will come again to bring a kingdom of God on earth, ending poverty and oppression. That might sound like a pretty reasonable dichotomy to present, and I could certainly list Christian figures or movements that land broadly in column A or column B. But the problem is that anyone with the most basic Christian education will recognise that both of these sides are generally regarded as key aspects of Christian teaching: like yeah, the kingdom of God is within us and we need to change our hearts, so that we can bring the kingdom of God on earth and end poverty and oppression. They’re literally two halves of a whole.
- And it would be one thing if the film presented them as two halves of a whole, with Mary and Peter tragically talking past each other and not realising they’re saying the same thing in different ways. But the film is 110% in Mary’s camp. Peter only disagrees with her because he hates women, and transforms on the spot into the modern church as he explains why actually Mary isn’t part of the cool kids club. “Every man in this room is the rock” on which the church is built, emphasis absolutely his, and another line taken out of Jesus’ mouth.
- While I call Mary Magdalene serious and reverent and boring, the worst part is that it’s shallow. It’s serious and reverent and boring and it doesn’t even reward you with a glimpse of transcendence. It’s a film that thinks you can’t handle being dropped into New Testament times without a “Judea, 33 CE”, and its estimate of your intelligence doesn’t go up from there.
- Here’s a behind-the-scenes picture from the set of Mary Magdalene:
- Now that’s a film I’d want to see. It’s the film I wish we’d gotten.