Mary Magdalene

March 23, 2018
From here to Eternity, with Jesus & Mary
From here to Eternity, with Jesus & Mary

Of all the figures in the New Testament, Mary Magdalene has been the most misunderstood. This is partly because early commentators found it hard to distinguish between Mary of Magdala, Mary of Bethany, and the ‘sinful’ woman in the Gospel of St. Luke, who anoints Jesus’s feet in Simon’s house and dries them with her hair. Mary has also been confused with the Samaritan woman at the well, and the woman taken in adultery that Jesus saved from death by stoning.

The confusion was finally cleared up by Pope Gregory the Great in 591, who pronounced that Mary Magdalene and Luke’s sinful woman were one and the same. There was no textual basis for this claim, only artful exegesis. For the following 1,400 years, Mary Magdalene would be viewed as a “fallen” woman, or prostitute, who found her redemption in Christ. She would be seen as proof that even the greatest sinners might be forgiven and take their place in Heaven. As such she inspired one of the great cults of the Middle Ages. The image has persisted throughout popular culture, with the result that even today there are Christians who think of Mary as a hooker with a heart of gold.

Gregory’s interpretation served to enshrine women in a subordinate role. From Eve to Mary Magdalene, all they could do was repent their misdeeds. Indeed, many theologians believed that with the exception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, woman’s nature was inherently sinful.

It was a very different story in the early centuries of the Christian faith when it appears that women were allowed to act as priests and administer the sacraments. By medieval times the priesthood had become an all-male affair, and so it has remained.

Scriptwriters Helen Edmundsen and Philippa Goslett have waded into this theological quagmire, taking us back to the Mary Magdalene that appears in the Gospels as Jesus’s best companion, the “apostle of apostles” who was chosen to be the first witness of the Resurrection. This effectively means stripping away all the lurid ideas about Mary’s sinfulness, leaving her as the most pure and saintly of disciples.

It’s arguably a necessary act of feminist restitution. The ‘me-too’ aspect is ironically reinforced by the fact that film was produced by Harvey Weinstein’s former company which delayed release while the Big Sleaze was still making headlines.

The problem is that an innocent, saintly Mary Magdalene, who spends much of the film having intense little chats with Jesus, does not make for rivetting entertainment. Rooney Mara in the title role gives us her full repertoire of prolonged, soulful stares. Joaquin Phoenix (real name: Joaquin Rafael Bottom) is a softly-spoken, weatherbeaten Jesus, who looks like Charles Manson but shows divine patience and understanding. Audiences have no option but to imitate Christ.

It would be difficult for any director to make a magnificent altarpiece out of this material but Garth Davis, whose previous film was the overrated Lion (2016), has chosen to treat the story as a plodding bio pic, with a long, slow build-up and a rapid denouement in which the details of Christ’s final hours are given the most glancing treatment. It’s the very opposite of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), which dwelt on every gory moment. For that omission we may give thanks, but Davis provides scarcely a trace of fantasy or poetry, apart from a rather lame underwater sequence that seems to equate baptism with synchronised swimming.

Mary Magdalene, more sinned against than sinner, is certainly due for a reassessment, but we know so little about her as an historical figure that it should be an invitation to any director to exercise some imagination. Instead, Davis and his cautious, earnest scriptwriters have tried to reconstruct Mary’s life on the shores of the Sea of Galilee as a slice of social realism.

When Mary expresses a desire not to marry it’s taken as a sign of madness, and she is soon being dipped in the waves as a way of exorcising her “seven devils”. It’s only when Jesus and his apostles arrive that she recognises her destiny and joins the band, like a moonstruck groupie.

Mary swiftly becomes Jesus’s favourite, leading to a slightly fractious relationship with a grumpy Paul (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Her best buddy seems to be Judas (fresh-faced Tahar Rahim), who is arguably the most interesting character in the film. He is portrayed as a man with an intense need to believe that Christ will eventually flex his muscles and bring about His Kingdom on earth. Judas’s betrayal, untainted by any payment of silver, is an attempt at forcing Jesus’s hand that goes disastrously wrong.

There’s the germ of a compelling story in this but the movie moves so quickly towards a conclusion that it remains an ephemeral episode. Davis seems almost ashamed to take the focus away from our heroine, with her languorous stares and her piety. After 1,400 years Mary Magdalene is finally having her moment. It’s a pity she’s so dull.

Mary Magdalene
Directed by Garth Davis
Written by Helen Edmundson, Philippa Goslett
Starring Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim, Ariane Labed, Denis Ménochet
UK/Australia, rated M, 120 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 24 March, 2018