The Mary Magdalene Movie image

The Mary Magdalene Movie

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I always approach movies based on Bible stories with some trepidation. Being highly invested in the truth of the Bible tends to create a certain defensiveness – it matters if the film messes up because the story matters so much. This also means I have certain preconceived assumptions about ‘Biblical’ movies: I feel uncomfortable about visual representations of any person of the Trinity, and uncomfortable about artistic licence being taken with the story, and uncomfortable about a visual focus on things the Bible references only in passing.

So when a friend in America asked if I’d go and check out the Mary Magdalene movie for him (it was released in the UK before being screened in the US) I could by no means be considered an unbiased reviewer. Before ever setting foot in the theatre my defences were certainly up.

It is almost with relief, then, that I can report that this movie is so terrible, so extraordinarily bad, that it is not merely my hardwired reservations about ‘Bible movies’ that mean I am going to pan it. The scriptural verisimilitude aside, by every other measure, this is just plain and simple awful.

Director Garth Davis is wanting to focus on the psychological in his portrayal of Mary. He’s seeking to tell an internal story of Mary’s journey from prisoner of patriarchal small-town life, about to be forced into a marriage she doesn’t want, to apostle of the apostles, proclaiming a message of non-judgmental hope. That’s hard to pull off successfully though, and rather than doing it successfully we are subjected to a sequence of lingering close-ups of Mary’s (Rooney Mara) rather beautiful face. And that is a problem, because more than a window into Mary’s soul, these shots convey perfect hair and perfect makeup: my disbelief struggled to be suspended about this when Mary is meant to be an oppressed Judean peasant. Why not have Mary look like an oppressed Judean peasant if that is what she was? This problem is compounded by the way in which Mara’s accent slips about half an hour into the movie, from kinda-Israeli to natural American. At the least, that is distracting.

So simply on an artistic level I found Mary hard to take. And that’s before we even get to Joaquin Phoenix’s Jesus. Now, Jesus is a difficult character to play. How should one act out being the Messiah? (Whether one should even attempt to is an issue we can park for the time being.) It can’t be easy. But Phoenix’s attempt resembles more an angst-ridden Timothy Leary, spouting New Age sounding musings, meets Leonardo Di Caprio in The Revenant, than the kind of Jesus portrayed in the gospels.

At one point I did start to fall asleep.

The character in the movie who offers some interest is Judas. Davis portrays him as the most committed of Jesus’ followers and sets up Judas’ betrayal as an honestly-intended attempt to force the Messiah’s hand into revealing his true power. That at least has the benefit of being psychologically interesting, even as it strays far from the biblical accounts. But that is a small fragment of relief in a movie that is otherwise entirely unsatisfying. That, and the fact that the Italian countryside where Magdalene was shot is very beautiful. You could watch the movie for the scenery I suppose.

Mary Magdalene draws to a gratefully received close with Mary and Peter confronting one another in a scene that once more underlines the true awfulness of the movie. Essentially it’s a set-up for The Da Vinci Code as Peter defies what Jesus wants to do through Mary and presents his own male-manifesto for the Church. It’s toe-curling stuff.

In terms of story-telling, character portrayal, and artistic believability I was left wishing I’d gone into another theatre and watched Peter Rabbit. And that’s before even beginning to consider the theological problems with Mary Magdalene. Somehow it doesn’t seem worth the effort of doing so though: Mary Magdalene just isn’t good enough to worry about.

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