Movie Review: Mary Magdalene (2018)

Timed for commercial release to coincide with the Easter holiday, MARY MAGDALENE presents a somewhat revisionist version of the story of Jesus’ only female apostle or, as Roman Catholic Church calls her, the “apostle to the apostles”.

Mary the Magdalene (as she should be correctly called) has been a controversial figure for centuries thanks in no small part to Pope Gregory I’s homily in the year 591, which referred to her as a loose woman turned repentant sinner. Over the years, “loose woman” morphed into “prostitute”, a depiction that many still hold today even after the Catholic Church revised its assessment of her back in 1969. Regardless of how she may have led her life, Mary’s name is mentioned at least 12 times within the four canonical Gospels – more than most of the male apostles. Two of those Gospels specifically name her as the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection.

In this film version, Rooney Mara (LION; CAROL; HER) plays the title character who is a midwife living in her father’s household in the fishing village of Magdal on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Fiercely independent, she refuses to marry Ephraim, a widower chosen for her by her father and brother. Instead, after she meets Jesus, she decides to follow him and his apostles, spreading the rabbi from Nazareth’s message of peace and love. Not surprisingly, some of the apostles don’t take too kindly to her presence, fearing that she will detract Jesus from their mission but they agree to accept her after Jesus himself tells them that she will help them reach out to Judea’s women. The story follows their pilgrimage to Jerusalem at the time of the Jewish holiday of Passover and ever-so-briefly touches upon the Last Supper, Judas’ betrayal, Jesus’ crucifixion and his resurrection three days later. Blink and you’ll miss those parts.

Joaquin Phoenix (IRRATIONAL MAN; HER) plays Jesus and, looking more like Charles Manson with his ice blue eyes, unkempt hair and overgrown beard, he forms a stark contrast to the “hot Jesus” image that actor Diogo Morgodo gave audiences in the 2014 film, SON OF G-D. Phoenix’s Jesus is not a very charismatic character though. He’s a man of few words and what he says, which I’m sure comes straight from scripture, sadly lacks inspiration. That doesn’t seem to matter here though, as the apostles seem quite capable of whipping up crowd fervour wherever they go. Watching this film, one might get the cynical impression that the apostles were nothing more than circus barkers with Jesus being the main attraction. Regardless, Mary seems to be the one who understands Jesus’ message best, explaining to the others what concepts like “one kingdom under G-d” really mean.

For her part, Mara is fine as the wide-eyed believer, though her portrayal seems constrained by the film’s writing and direction. In many movie and stage depictions, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as being hyper-sexual. Not so here, which makes for a nice change, but unfortunately it doesn’t make for compelling viewing. Her character needed to have more passion for it to be more interesting. That’s the big problem with the film – it lacks passion all around. As over-the-top as Mel Gibson’s PASSION OF THE CHRIST is both in its depiction of violence and in its blatant anti-Semitism, at least it is moving. Director Garth Davis’ (LION) film is as beige as the clothes on the Galileans’ backs. The scenery, too, is just as bland. Watching this film, one could easily be forgiven for thinking that the sun never shone in Judea.

On the plus side, Davis wisely cast a few Black actors as some of the apostles, including Chiwetel Ejiofor (THE MARTIAN; 12 YEARS A SLAVE) as Peter and Charles Babalola (THE LEGEND OF TARZAN) as his brother Andrew. Why not! French actor Tahar Rahim (Oscar nominated A PROPHET) nearly steals the film as Judas Iscariot. It’s too bad the story wasn’t told from his perspective. Done well, too, is the Hebrew that is spoken in the film, though it’s not surprising as the cast is peppered with Israeli actors including Uri Gavriel (TV’s FAUDA), Michael Moshonov (THE FLOOD, a film I brought to Hong Kong in 2011) and Zohar Strauss (EYES WIDE OPEN, another film I brought to Hong Kong).

MARY MAGDALENE is not the worst film about Jesus out there but it’s certainly not going to be remembered as being one of the best. You can safely give this one a miss unless you’re an ardent believer.

Listen to the review recorded in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, April 5th at 8:30 am HK time!

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