MARY MAGDALENE: Starring Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim. Directed by Garth Davis. Rated M (Mature themes) 120 minutes
AFTER the new light shed on the misconceptions of the person of Mary of Magdala comes a film that takes us on a pensive journey, of following the calling placed on one’s heart, to step out of the ordinary and pursue the extraordinary.
Set in the Holy Land during the lifetime of Jesus, we meet a tranquil young lady (Rooney Mara) in a very peaceful, small fishing village in Galilee, eventually expected to follow the long tradition of leaving the family by marrying a family-matched young man.
In the first act, Mary is shown to be capable in more ways than her peers.
For example, by assisting a child delivery by tenderly embracing a mother in a world of pain.
Along with her gifts, comes a growing desire within her to be more than she is destined to be and so when she refuses to marry a suitor, it causes an uproar within her family to the point where she is taken to be exorcised.
While scriptures tell us that Jesus met Mary Magdalene after he cast out her demons, this film depicts these “demons” as her struggle to bust out from the rigid and cultural expectations of the time.
She is then met by Jesus (played by Joaquin Phoenix) the following morning, who gently denies any demons within her.
Mary is intrigued by this man and his radical followers, shortly opting to leave everything behind to follow “the more” that she sensed would be coming her way.
Through following this man, Mary finds meaning and purpose as she accompanies Jesus in sharing God’s word and ministering to hundreds despite the disapproval of fellow disciples, mainly Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), portrayed as very cynical.
As the only woman in the group, Mary is shown to be grasping Jesus’ teaching much more firmly in contrast to a follower such as Judas Iscariot (played by Tahar Rahim).
The latter is given a lot of screen time as to give a stark contrast of the two extremities going on within Jesus’ closest circle; Judas is grief-stricken by the loss of his loved ones hence is unable to see past his own self-interest as he buys into Jesus’ promise of God’s Kingdom coming on Earth.
With such limited information on Mary and Judas, there was some creative license thrown around with the many gaps, as the writers seek to demonstrate a different perspective to the story that is assumed to be common knowledge nowadays.
Unfortunately, there were a few instances where too much is assumed from the audience, namely the steps in Jesus’ journey, societal expectations and even why the crufixition happened.
So, can the message of this film transpire within those in the crowd who are non-believers?
It surely offers a fresh perspective without staying entirely true to what comes from the scriptures.
Mary Magdalene, the movie, may come across as feminist and revisionist historical drama that challenges the relevance of the role of a woman, a theme that is prevalent in the current day and age.
Technically speaking, the cinematography here done by Greig Fraser is engaging and eye-pleasing; beautiful sceneries, a Holy Land that is oozing with details along with a wardrobe of stylishly minimal shawls and robes, many hand-embroidered for the production by Palestinian refugees working for an anti-poverty social enterprise in Jordan.
This is accompanied with a poignant but haunting electro-orchestral score which gives great effect to many of the slow-moving and emotional moments of the film.
On the downside, the narrative lacks focus and energy in the first act, giving us very vague information on Mary’s background and leaving the audience to piece the puzzle together.
Perhaps this is intentional as director Garth Davis tightens things up in the second and third acts as the narrative’s focus narrows down to the events of Calvary and the role that our titular character plays in it.
Davis uses a couple of extra scenes with the aim of adding substance to Mary’s character quoting the parable of the mustard seed but fails to connect its meaning to the main plotline.
Furthermore, the honour of playing Jesus Christ fell upon the shoulders of acclaimed actor Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line, Hotel Rwanda) who paints quite a surly and smug figure as the Saviour, depicted as having less warmth and patience.
The community-building aspect of Jesus and his followers goes astray as Jesus’ screen time consists almost entirely of preaching to the crowds, ministering to others, some instructional conversations with his disciples (other than the Passover) and his suffering on Calvary.
Despite the biblical indescrepancies and nuances, Mary Magdalene does strike a different note and is successful at casting a message of that is sure to resonate amongst religious and non-religious alike, even if it does enhance a secular idealism.
Regardless, it’s strongest point is the resolve that Mary has in following what is so strong in her heart that she is willing to fight, give up everything and stand firm in the One that changes her life.
By Arnie Hurdoyal