By Preston Wilder
So tell me, asks Mary Magdalene in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Has any of this happened as you expected it to?”. Yes and no, Mary, yes and no. On the one hand, not really, because the Mary Magdalene (played by Rooney Mara) in this Biblical drama is a more complex figure than appears in the New Testament. On the other hand, very much so, Mary’s rehabilitation – a closing caption explains that she was made ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ in 2016, centuries after being unfairly slut-shamed by Pope Gregory in the year 591 – being in line with 21st-century gender equality.
Then again, the answer is no – because Mary Magdalene the movie isn’t what you’d expect from this kind of material, being intense, emotive and downright arty. Director Garth Davis (who made Lion) has largely avoided simple pieties, both religious and liberal, going instead for a contemplative, doom-laden drama – it’ll certainly seem ‘too slow’ to a lot of people – which lives on the tension between three kinds of passion. There’s spiritual passion, of course, Mary joining the Apostles as they preach the Word of God around Judea, circa 33 AD; there’s political passion, the Jews’ righteous rage against Roman oppression, exemplified in Judas (Tahar Rahim) who’s lost his wife and child to the oppressors; and there’s even fleeting but obvious sexual passion, in Joaquin Phoenix’s charismatic, fiery-eyed Jesus.
Phoenix is a sombre, tortured actor, and also in his 40s; his Jesus is older than usual, and a lot more haggard-looking – but this moody Messiah is enough to induce Mary to leave her family and become his groupie. That said, her life leaves a lot to be desired, ruled by patriarchal diktats and strict taboos: her father insists that she marry – “I’m not made for that life,” she pleads, wanting more – and tries to have her exorcised, thinking she must be possessed, when she flees to the church to pray for guidance (women are supposed to pray at specific times, not whenever they feel like it). This ties in with the Gospels, which do indeed speak of Jesus having cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene – but this Jesus merely looks at her and says “There are no demons here”, smiling briefly but irresistibly.
The first half-hour is all Mary – but her story fades (this is probably the film’s biggest flaw) as we move, perhaps inevitably, to Passion, death and resurrection. Instead she becomes something of a true believer, the one person who actually ‘gets’ Christ, in contrast to the other disciples who either indulge in petty rivalry (“You weakened us, Mary,” claims Peter) or get political, viewing the Kingdom of Heaven through the prism of revolution. Judas, especially, is a tragic figure, his fatal flaw being that he’s too literal: he hears about the dead rising up and thinks of his family – then inevitably feels let down when JC doesn’t deliver. The miracle of Lazarus is especially telling, Judas grinning happily and the others seeing political capital (“This is what we’ve been waiting for!”) while Jesus slumps, drained by the effort and seeing his death drawing closer.
The raising of Lazarus, lest we forget, defeated no less an eminence than Martin Scorsese (the infamous “So, Lazarus… how do you feel?” from The Last Temptation of Christ) – but Davis aces the scene, working in impassioned close-ups as he does quite often in the movie; the arrival in Jerusalem is nothing but close-ups, each person thinking their own thoughts as the curtain rises on the final act. The film is intimate and gloweringly-acted; it’s also beautiful. The landscapes (ably played by Italian locations) are all earth and water, while DP Greig Fraser crafts one stunning shot after another (a small boat at night, lit by torchlight; a line of shawls as women sit in church), all to the strains of a remarkable score – alternately orchestral and electronic – by the late Icelandic composer Johann Johannson. Easy to surrender to the atmosphere in Mary Magdalene, even if you find the story boring.
Alas, it does get boring in the final stretch. It might’ve done better to condense the last days of Jesus to a quick shorthand (Davis already does this, but he could’ve gone further) and concentrate more on the mind of its titular heroine – though, to be fair, the Bible doesn’t offer much guidance here, Mary being something of a bystander, and you do need an Easter plot in an Easter movie. Still, this fervent drama is leagues better than the one-dimensional religiosity of The Shack (last year’s Easter movie), and the script is constantly surprising. The best scene finds Jesus preaching to a group of women, urging them to come to God – but one acerbic woman tells the story of a rapist who shrugged off his crime with a simple “God forgive me”, showing how easily religion can enable the patriarchy. “How does it feel having that hate in your heart?” replies Jesus simply, issuing a message of love for censorious times and rising up above all kinds of politics – even the feminist ones which underpin Mary Magdalene. Well, that didn’t happen as expected.
DIRECTED BY Garth Davis
STARRING Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Tahar Rahim
UK/US/Australia 2018 120 mins