The world will only change as we change.Mary Magdalene
As it does, and we do, so inevitably will the stories we tell about it. Like DiCaprio as Romeo, or Hopkins as Lear, Mara as Mary is familiar immediately, even to those who don’t know her story, and even as it comes, conjured from the ethers of the screenwriters’ imaginations, as never before. This may not be Shakespeare with a 9mm, but it is every bit as liberal with its sources as that beloved 90’s Luhrmann opus, though the unfamiliar viewer might not know it. Director Garth Davis’ vision of Galilee is plenty faithful to the cornerstones of the Christian mythos, and maybe even truer to the New Testament message than Constantine’s version itself. But let there be no mistake, it’s a new take on an old tale, grabbing the archetypal story of the holy patriarchy itself and spinning it on its feet, with a turn that is unashamedly modern and feminist – even feminine – and in so doing, giving us a Christ whose infectious passion is alive, and not only of, but in, love.
There are no demons here.Rabbi Jesus
If you’re here at least in part as a fan of Rooney Mara, as we are, this movie is a feast. Her intimate, emotional, intelligent rendition of the title character is nuanced, fragile and strong. Her Mary is bold enough to push through a crowd of men, walk away from the family that fears her, and hold Christ’s tired head in her lap, but not without pain, or scars. Its players clad in simple robes and desert colors, the Jerusalem here is unadorned, human. If Disney bought the rights, no doubt Mary would be done up like the prostitute the Vatican slandered her as for centuries, but instead we get Mara with very little makeup and a natural look that brings out her features as starkly as the cliffs of southern Italy where the film was staged. In modern Hollywood, this is a rare and noteworthy achievement in itself – a movie about feminine power and intelligence, where the lead is presented with natural beauty. The fire you’ll see in her is entirely coming from within.
Wake up Magdala. Open your eyes.Rabbi Jesus
If you’re coming from a place of some reverence for the messages of the New Testament, but not of absolute Biblical authority, like we do, Joaquin’s Messiah is a revelation. Emotional, idealistic, powerful and prone to moments of catatonia, the Rabbi here is exactly the kind that could only come to life in theater. For this Jesus, it’s not only what he says, but how he says it. When Phoenix forgives, it’s not from authority, but empathy. When he says, “Feed the suffering to ease their pain,” placing an unmissable emphasis on “their,” he is calling out everything self-serving in charity, everything false in the human idols of the Vatican. Everything he does is methodical, paced and precise, without an ounce of doubt – and without fear, so to speak, in its place, as he understands the inevitable ends of their paths, a deep sadness. He seems to know what direction the wind will blow, not as one who wills it to be so, but as a leaf that has lived its life in the current. In this he invokes the humility and subtle femininity inherent in the more beautiful renditions of the character, historically.
God’s kingdom is not to be bought and sold.Rabbi Jesus
While clearly using the Bible and the gnostic Gospel of Mary as source material, it’s questionable if there is a single accurate quotation in the film. However by foregoing the Word, screenwriters Goslett & Edmundson clear a path for the Message. Here we are revisiting the Greatest Story not in mere worship, but in appreciation. Is it truly better than Tolkein? Shakespeare? Rowling? (jk!) Ejiofor’s Apostle Peter is weakened by pride, never quite certain where they are all headed, but a natural, if flawed, leader. Rahim’s Judas Iscariot comes from a soft introduction through the torment of a lone surviving father, past mania and desperation to absolute faith, over the edge of that same fervor to error, collapse and suicide – and nothing short of Hamlet is likely to come close to that arc, honestly. Mara’s Magdalene transforms scene by scene, from hopelessness and abandonment, right through awe and courage, to become the rock for the Messiah’s sadness to wash upon. With the speed of tragedy we see their charismatic young Rabbi desperately lash out at the temple, throwing over the bowls of gold, taken as if by a religious seizure as he’s arrested and sentenced without so much as a trial before us. The cruelty of the Roman system of justice is laid as bare as any other scene in the film, and the degree with which the whole group accepts their lot beneath such an iron hammer of religious government – well if that doesn’t leave you cold, you’re not really watching. When Christ appears to Mary, sitting on the hillside near his open tomb, the understated message is of the immortal calm of real love, how we might let go of hate like evanescence in the morning, if we could generally find such grace. And in one of the few elements that is directly biblical, we get Mary Magdalene in these key final scenes, as his devoted companion. If you don’t think that rivals Gandalf’s “Fly, you fools!” or even Tom Joad’s “I’ll be there,” then we may just have to agree we’re using very different measures of storytelling. Have fun with Avengers 3, I’ll be over here.
Listen. In the silence is there something calling? Do you have the courage to follow what you hear?Rabbi Jesus
I’m not saying it’s perfect, and if you’re an impatient moviegoer, reluctant to accept an emo Jesus, or guilty of knee-jerk reactions from religious traumas in your own past, there’s plenty else out there worth a look. There’s no monopoly on great themes or emotional dialogue here, let alone moral or feminist sentiments. But as part of the modern pantheon of films trying to make new sense out of Biblical heritage and stories, Mary Magdalene stands alongside Mel’s Passion as one of the best. In its motherly graces it may in fact be the truest interpretation of Christ’s Christianity in modern theater.
The path goes into darkness.Rabbi Jesus
And I will walk it with you.Mary Magdalene
There’s no more knowing if the Gospel of Mary is legitimate history than there would be for any of the rest of Nicea’s even-then-300-year-old authors, no way to reconcile the supernatural powers of this exceptional young Rabbi with the laws of physics, any more than Phoenix and Mara’s understated but omnipresent sexual chemistry – which has no place in the screenplay but is downright palpable in the film. Was Mary Christ’s wife? Did they have a kid and spawn a millennia-crossing conspiracy for OCD codebreakers and monotheistic tyrants? There’s no more of that present here than the quasi-Hindu creation stories peppering other Gnostic writings from the same late-discovered codex as the Gospel of Mary itself. That is to say there’s some pretty odd and, shall we say, “imaginative” stuff in the same “ancient” book where they found some of this. The way such things were compiled over those long lost centuries however, it’s entirely possible a real Gospel could have ended up bound to the same scroll that contained the Silmarillion nonsense of the Pistis Sophia (you’ll just have to Google it, I don’t have time to dive deep on that acid trip). Whether it’s archaic fairytales or Dan Brown’s Carmen Sandiego – or even Da Vinci’s ethnically questionable redhead – the common ground between all these takes on the character does, on final look, appear to hold steady with Biblical standard. An afflicted woman, cured by a lightning-fresh young Rabbi, follows him, and while she is talked over plenty by the men around her, she’s left standing with only his mother and aunt on the hill where he dies. She’s the first to announce his rebirth.
A flick of the knife at the altar. A psalm of repentance on their way out. Have their hearts been altered when they leave this place?Rabbi Jesus
In Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene, Jesus is a Jewish Rabbi, in his moment of transition into a Messiah, in love with truth like a god, angry as a revolutionary but playful like a child, and while the miracles he works to cure the blind and raise the dead are the outright cause of the furor that erupts in his wake, it is the softer, feminine take on sacrifice as love, which he himself hails as God’s Kingdom on Earth. Not so strange that the story of Mary, as retold again here for the first time, should embody that Kingdom in ways no machismo epic or procession of Popes would often even acknowledge as short of witchcraft or seduction. The crimes of the Crusades may in fact be trivial to the sleights endured by our mothers over the previous two millennia, as they bore us all into the world. The blood you see on an infant’s skin, as it comes forth from the womb, does generally not belong to the child, after all.
That’s just enough to say that Mary’s story, true or not, is a fine addition to this cultural heritage. Better late than never.
Look at the crosses on the hills of Jerusalem. The holy city held hostage to Roman jackals.The Apostles and the men of Magdala
And she asked him, “what will it be like?”
And he said, “it is like a seed,”
“a single grain of mustard seed,”
“which a woman took and sowed in her garden.”
“And it grew,”
“and it grew.”
“And the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”