Following on from the huge global success of his debut feature, Lion, Australian director Garth Davis jumped straight back into it with his biblical film, Mary Magdalene, an account of the Christ story from the point of view of the eponymous controversial figure.
The Holy Land in the early first century CE: in the village of Magdala, Mary (Rooney Mara) feels touched by the hand of God, but the religious laws of the day proscribe her from worshiping in her own manner. Betrothed to a man she does not love, she rejects a future of domestic drudgery and instead joins the acolytes of the wandering rabbi, Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix). Walking the road to Jerusalem alongside the stoic, noble Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the zealous Judas (Tahar Rahim), and more, she learns of the promised Kingdom of God, and grows close to Jesus. However, the Kingdom may not be as tangible as some of the apostles believe, and some are jealous of the intimacy between Mary and Jesus.
for his second at bat as feature director, Garth Davis (the world-beating Lion) has picked a big one, not only choosing to tell the story of the ministry and crucifixion of Christ, but to frame it from the viewpoint of the titular Mary Magdalene, long labeled a prostitute by mainstream religious authorities and all but excised from the canonical gospels. Davis’ film, built on a screenplay by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, re-positions the Christ narrative as a feminist story, attempting to answer two separate but linked questions: what appeal would the ministry of Christ hold for a woman of that time, an how then was the role of women in the early Christian church so reduced after Christ’s death?
It is partially successful at both, the former more than the later (Mary being effectively ousted from the early church is encapsulated in one scene). Mary Magdalene as both a film and a character remains frustratingly opaque and oblique. Like its lead actress, the film is wan and ethereal and somewhat hard to read: we get miracles with a small “m”, sermons but no interpretation, debate but no decision. In terms of plot, once the film settles down after Mary joins the gang, it’s effectively JC’s greatest hits (the ambiguous raising of Lazarus, the casting out of the moneylenders, the crucifixion, the ambiguous resurrection). Speaking from a possibly blasphemous structural point of view, these are the beats you have to hit when you;re telling the story of Jesus, it must be supposed, but getting there is at times as taxing as, well, walking to Jerusalem.
It is beautifully shot, though, and the tangible details of the period and place are well-evoked. Strong performances abound: Phoenix’s rough-hewn, inscrutably mystic messiah, Ejiofor’s troubled traditionalist, Rahim’s bereaved and desperate to believe follower and, yes, Mara’s otherworldly figure of sacred femininity. But the character’s otherworldly depiction is an issue; Mary never feels fully human, fully relatable. She is a figure to observed and admired, not empathised with. There’s a scene where Jesus ministers to a gathering of women who bemoan their lot in life, their labours and laments – those women are real. Mara’s Magdalene, seemingly untouched by road dust after weeks of travel, rings hollow.
It is a valiant effort, though, a beautifully mounted and made film. It’s just that the thesis is murky, the intent obscure, and you can’t help but think the most challenging and interesting potential parts of the story didn’t make it to the screen – or possibly even the page.