starring Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tahar Rahim
written by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett
directed by Garth Davis
I hesitated to rent Mary Magdalene because I was unsure if it was going to be an English-language film. It is. I picked out Rooney Mara’s and Joaquin Phoenix’s names from the Japanese on the DVD case, and I knew they were English-language actors, which by itself does not guarantee the language of the film. There have been cases in the past when I’ve accidentally rented non-English films that nevertheless had English titles. I was tricked! (The most recent being the German-language film The Young Karl Marx, directed by Raul Peck.)
In the first few seconds I thought Mary Magdalene was a Terrance Malik film owing to the hyper sound effects quality of bird song, wind, water, and human breath. Malik was not the director. Malik began as a nature documentarian, and in feature films he continues to bring that sensibility to his audio. But the situation in Mary Magdalene, I think, is Biblically based. The director Garth Davis is channeling Jesus of Nazareth’s description of the Kingdom of God as being like a tree grown from the smallest seed in whose branches all the birds of the earth come to rest.
Any film based on the Bible faces challenges. First, there are diverse religious folk who will object to the project as blasphemy for different reasons - even diametrically opposite reasons. Those kinds of objections do not flatter religious folk. Second, actors who portray Biblical characters face stiff comparisons. First there are comparisons with character descriptions in the Bible texts, then there are comparisons with other actors who played the same characters in other films. When I think of Jesus of Nazareth in film, for example, I immediately think of two actors in two films: Ted Neeley in Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ, Superstar (1973, based on the 1970 Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice Broadway show), and Willem Dafoe in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, based on the 1965 Nikos Kazantzakis novel). I never say Mel Gibson’s 2004 The Passion of the Christ, starring Jim Caviezel, so I can’t comment on that. There are a dozen or so other Jesus movies in addition to other Biblical movies, but the Jewison and Scorsese films were the biggest in my life.
I’m not satisfied with Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Christ. He lacks the charisma that Jesus must have had. And, the character of Mary lacks so much depth that her story really isn’t very interesting.
Christ’s disciples in the film, led by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter, come across as a pack of dolts who never properly listened to their Master’s teachings about the Kingdom of God because they were too caught up in the Jewish expectation of a leader to lead the nation into a military revolt against Roman control in this world. Mary cottoned on faster than Peter. Since the early Middle Ages Mary Magdalene has been labeled a prostitute by the Roman Church, even though she is not called that in the New Testament. It’s only recently that the Vatican has rehabilitated her and called her an Apostle. During Jesus short ministry women actually featured prominently in his inner circle, because he was commonly supported by them. They housed and fed him and gave him all manner of support.
I was very interested to see the portrayal of the treatment of women in that world. I was also interested to see upright posts along the roadsides. These, of course, were used by the Romans for crucifixions. The Romans commonly left the upright posts in place and condemned people carried only the horizontal bar across their shoulders to their executions. I try to use this fact to argue against some Christians who say that rather than being crucified on a traditional Latin cross, Jesus was actually executed on an X-shaped “torture stake.” That might really be true. But my complaint is that you cannot reach that conclusion on the basis of a paucity of wood in the Levant. The Romans compensated for that paucity simply by re-using the posts. Maybe they recycled the horizontal cross beams, too.
The film is a UK-Australian co-production, filmed mostly in Rome and other locations in Italy. Post-production work done in Melbourne, Australia.