Like Judas leaving the Last Supper but in reverse, Mary Magdalene, the newish film by Garth Davis, skulked into American theaters in April.
This is Mr. Davis’ second feature after 2016’s Lion, the story of a lost boy in India who eventually finds his way home. It was a very fine film. Mary Magdalene is not. It gets lost. And stays lost.
I say newish because Mr. Davis actually shot the film in 2016, and it had its English premiere in March of 2018. So why did it take more than a year for it to open in the United States? Begin with the fact that it was a Harvey Weinstein project, and enough said about that. Then there’s its treatment of the Gospel story, which, by definition, must be its basis. The movie’s take on Jesus and Magdalene is not exactly traditional.
To wit: Mr. Davis has made a neo-feminist film about the way the men in Jesus’ entourage rejected his closest follower, Mary of Magdala (played by Rooney Mara), who was (allegedly) the only one among the followers of Jesus who really understood him.
The film begins with Mary underwater, apparently struggling to find the surface. She does eventually; the film never does. Not long after – for reasons not made clear – a rabbi is called to perform an exorcism on Mary, which he does by nearly drowning her in the Sea of Galilee. She needs healing, apparently, because she’s an independent woman.
She’s actually a farmer and a fisherwoman, not a courtesan, and Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) is actually a. . .well, he comes across as a kind of manic homeless man who may once have worked as an orderly at a state-run psychiatric hospital in Galilee. Or was he a patient?
Mary is also a midwife, so she and Jesus both have some experience in the healing professions. He succeeds where that rabbi failed, although not by exorcising her demons but by accepting her as she is. Jesus baptizes her. She baptizes other women.
Mr. Phoenix plays Jesus as a very anguished Messiah, indeed, and it’s hard to understand why the man has disciples. Oh, he’s a wonder-worker of sorts, but in healing a blind boy, raising Lazarus and then himself on the third day, the film encourages us to suppose there might be some simpler explanation than the miraculous. The viewer is befuddled. So are his followers.
Of course, it’s not wrong to play up the cluelessness of the Apostles, since – and this was true for all in Israel – they were expecting a different kind of Messiah. On the whole, these fellows are looking ahead to the great moment when Jesus will lead a revolt against the Romans and the Temple, and establish a kind of heaven on earth. Only Magdalene knows Jesus is seeking inner peace.
Mr. Davis has creatively cast a number of fine actors in key roles: Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter and Charles Babalola as Andrew (both British and black); Tahar Rahim, a French actor of Algerian ancestry, as Judas; and a number of very fine Israeli actors in various roles. (The film was made in Apulia, the heel of the Italian boot, along the Adriatic.)
A peculiar aspect of the film is that very few of the actors have much at all to say, which was reminiscent of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), possibly the most overrated film of all time: there’s a lot of scurrying about but little talking, preaching, or teaching. In Mary Magdalene, you really don’t know who’s who among the Twelve, except for maybe a third of them, whose names get dropped.
And screenwriters Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett have provided very little Gospel, presumably because Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were simply tools of patriarchy. And the point anyway is that Mary Magdalene was prima inter apostolos: not only was she a midwife to the young mothers of Magdala, she also midwifed Christianity.
And when she encounters Jesus after he isn’t dead anymore and then goes and brings the news to the Apostles, Peter tells her to be about her business now – the men will take over from here on.
These men are a nasty bunch.
To be blunt: Mary Magdalene is almost Helter Skelter. It’s not so much that Mr. Phoenix’s Jesus is Charles Manson-like as that he reminds you of Manson, scruffy and strange, and his band of men (and a woman) seems like a cult. But the best cinematic comparison is probably Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), which made Jesus and the Apostles into a band of hippies.
It’s the passionlessness of the Christ.
Greig Fraser’s cinematography doesn’t help matters. It’s about as subdued a palette as you’re likely to see, all greys and browns and blacks: flat and joyless.
Mary Magdalene is a revisionist film without a shred of evangelical intent. Like its treatment of miracles, it seems to want to “explain” (or expose) how this Christian myth happened, and to suggest that the best thing that came out of the cult was a strong woman leader who, had she been listened to and respected, might have been the one to lead an egalitarian Church, one very much like the one liberal Christians pine for today.
The film ends with Mary again under water, along with a lot of other people, all flailing away, and it’s the perfect coda for Mary Magdalene.
[The film has an R rating for some disturbing images, especially of starving people, including emaciated children. It likely won’t be “coming soon to a theater near you,” but I saw it on our cable provider’s pay-per-view. There it was $6.99, which is what you’d pay at other streaming services.]