Mary Magdalene Review
As the poster shows us, behind every great woman is a great man. Although not just any bloke, because this one happens to be the son of God. Which is a term that could also be applied to Joaquin nowadays such is his stature in the acting world. But as the title tells us, this is a film about the life of Mary Magdalene, a woman who until only a few years ago had never received official recognition for the role she played in the spreading of early Christianity. The moment couldn’t be more apt to reframe her story with a feminist twist while deftly attempting to side step the sort of trouble religious films of this kind tyically invite.
Although presented as a humanist retelling of Mary’s rebellion against her patriarchal home life onto a path following Jesus and beyond, the continued presence of JC takes the edge off her own story. Davis’ film plays all the big Jesus hits, from the last supper to the crucifixion and resurrection leaving Mary to play a supporting role on her own tour. Almost as if in an attempt to illustrate her importance Davis has focussed on the wrong era of her life. Here she seems like just another follower, rather than the torchbearer for the religion after the ‘departure’ of Christ.
Beautifully shot along the coast of Israel by cinematographer Greig Fraser, we meet the restless soul of Mary (Rooney Mara) in the town of Magdalene at an age beyond which she is expected to have married. The male members of her family attempt to cleanse her of the demons they believe are bringing shame on them and her calling to God is finally realised when Jesus (Phoenix) arrives in town with his loyal disciples. She leaves her family behind to the join the group of men as they hit the road following in the footsteps of the Messiah.
Coming only a week after the release of You Were Never Really Here, the sight of Phoenix’s face still swamped by facial hair as he throws around the word of God instead of a hammer is slightly disconcerting. That said, he certainly looks the part in a robe, albeit a little like a grumpy Jesus, a role which in itself takes some nerve to inhabit. Mara is a compelling presence in the role of Mary and even though it feels like her story is overshadowed, there can be little fault found with her performance. Tahar Rahim’s tragic portrayal of Judas gives the film its most absorbing character to watch while he grapples with his own inner turmoil.
Just when they thought all the bases had been safely covered, it seems controversy was always destined to show its face at some point. Accusations of whitewashing began as soon as the first trailer appeared last November and although the supporting cast features actors from Israel, Turkey and Palestine (along with Chiwetel Ejiofor's African take on Peter), the two lead roles reinforce the traditional white imagery so closely associated with Christianity, despite decades of research proving Mary and Jesus would've been darker skinned. It seems as if Film4 have taken the safety first option with little consideration given towards the current conversations surrounding onscreen representation.
Mary Magdalene also features the final score by Jóhann Jóhannsson before his passing in early February this year, and its earnestness manages to heighten the naturalism of Davis’ direction. What it can’t provide a substitute for is the absence of passion which has been stripped from the story for fear of stepping on the toes of both the Vatican and the Christian community. As this generation’s religious film it’s a pretty uninspiring affair and in a way it serves as the perfect metaphor for the current state of Christianity in this part of the world: introverted, easily forgotten and lacking relevance.