Mary Magdalene (2018)
Directed by: Garth Davis | 119 minutes | drama | Actors: Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim, Ariane Labed, Denis Ménochet, Lubna Azabal, Tchéky Karyo, Charles Babalola, Tawfeek Barhom, Ryan Corr, Uri Gavriel, Shira Haas, Tsahi Halevi, Michael Moshonov, David Schofield, Irit Sheleg, Jules Sitruk, Zohar Shtrauss
Who was Mary Magdalene? Her name is mentioned in the Bible; she followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem and was present at his crucifixion and burial. Moreover, according to John 20:1-18, she was the first to see him after his resurrection. But who she really was, that’s what the wildest stories go around. Was she the wife of Jesus or was she, as Pope Gregory the Great said in 591, a lady of easy virtue? Or did he mistake her for another Mary? Director Garth Davis, of ‘Lion’ (2016) fame, thought it was high time to investigate who Mary Magdalene was, and since Biblical-themed films always do very well in certain parts of the United States, he took a chance. Telling the ancient Bible story from a female point of view is of course completely in line with the zeitgeist of today. It is all the more salient that Harvey Weinstein was initially involved in the production as a producer. Indeed, that is the man accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of women in the film industry and with whom the entire #metoo movement was cranked up in 2017. That’s not exactly a man who values feminism, you might think. A number of smaller film companies therefore took over the production and distribution of ‘Mary Magdalene’ (2018), so that there is no longer any link with Weinstein who has fallen from his pedestal.
In the Holy Land, young Mary (Rooney Mara) leaves her conservative family and the small fishing village where she grew up to join a social radical group led by the charismatic Jesus of Nazareth (Joaquin Phoenix). Looking for a new way of life, Mary soon feels at ease with Jesus and his followers. Their spiritual journey leads to the capital of the Holy Land, Jerusalem, where Mary is confronted with the reality of Jesus’ future, and her own role in it. Australian director Garth Davis wanted to give the well-known Bible story a twist to make it relevant and recognizable again for twenty-first-century audiences. Moreover, a film that should captivate both believers and atheists equally. That admirable ambition results in an unbalanced film that is aesthetically of a high level, but which above all takes itself far too seriously. The question is, of course, whether the mostly conservative target group of the average Bible film is really looking forward to such a modernized version, with a feminist approach and a haggard Joaquin Phoenix in the role of Jesus. That is quite different from the much more conformist choice for Jim Caviezel, which Mel Gibson made for his Bible epic ‘The Passion of the Christ’ (2004).
Davis is in two minds too much; On the one hand he wants to tell the classic story of the crucifixion and resurrection, on the other he is determined to give the same story some firm modernist twists. In the first half of the film, the focus is on Mary, but over time, this feminist avant-la-lettre fades into the background and we see the story through the traditional, male perspective of Jesus, Judas (Tahar Rahim) and Peter. (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Although the first part is more interesting on paper because of its innovative point of view, Rooney Mara is not the right actress for this role with her colorless appearance. The fact that she does have a good chemistry with Phoenix – the two got into a relationship during the shooting of this film – is another plus. What she lacks in charisma, he has an excess of it, in effect subconsciously drowning out the woman it’s all about. Top actors such as Rahim and Ejiofor have the misfortune that their characters get little space to actually make an impression, although screenwriters Hele Edmundson and Philippa Goslett dare to give the betrayal of Judas a fresh twist. They turn Mary into a kind of holy superheroine with healing and empathic powers who is the only one who is really completely on the same wavelength as Jesus.
What sets ‘Mary Magdalene’ apart best are the overwhelming, picturesque landscapes (the footage was filmed in the south of Italy and in Sicily). That beautiful setting makes up for a lot of flaws that this film suffers from. The color palette of sand, ocher and granite, the pleasant minimalist clothing (designed by Jacqueline Curran but made by Palestinian refugees in Jordan and a score (the last by the composer Johann Johannson, who died in February 2018) that keeps on haunting you; it must be with ‘Mary Magdalene’, which is why it is such a shame that the film, despite all the courage and conviction of Davis, turns out to be an incoherent, weighty and uncomfortable whole.