The body of Mary (Rooney Mara) hovers and sways beneath the surface of the water in a submarine ballet. Is this a dream? A vision? The image floats on the horizon of the immanent and the transcendent, a baptism into the cinematic experience we are about to encounter. Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene maintains this hovering posture through its graceful cinematography, its haunting melodic soundtrack, and its quietly emotive performances. Navel-gazing and listless, Mary Magdalene is nevertheless an affecting, contemplative hagiography of a biblical figure which is more inclined towards an arthouse aesthetic than anything in the “faith-based” sub-genre. The closest contemporary parallel might be Rodrigo Garcia’s Last Days in the Desert in that both use poetic license in their portrayals of Christ, reading between the lines of Scripture while still holding to a supernatural metaphysic–this is a world of the miraculous and mysterious which cannot be reduced to mere psychology.
Mary lives a quiet life of desperation in the small fishing village of Magdala in Galilee, where she serves her family as both midwife and social misfit. Urged by her brothers and sisters to follow tradition and marry, the young woman is unintentionally subversive by simply being herself. Pious and pensive, she is more interested in developing her relationship with God than serving as a man’s child-bearer. After rejecting a marriage proposal, Mary’s family stages a spiritual intervention on her behalf, dragging her into the nearby sea and essentially waterboarding her in an unsettling exorcism sequence. Their good intentions, wrapped in tradition, end up hurting more than helping, leaving the aloof young woman to retreat even further into herself. Her life is upended when a traveling healer named Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) is invited by one of Mary’s brothers to rid her of her demons. In their quiet conversation, where she lets her guard down enough to open up about her spiritual vocation and desires, he calmly tells her with a quiet smile, “There are no demons here.” It’s a moment of deep affirmation, one she hasn’t received before. Indeed, this is a woman who has been socially and emotionally ostracized or dismissed, even abused, and someone is finally willing to listen to her. A person listened and believed her story. She’s intrigued by this man, perhaps the first man she has perceived as being safe even as his kingdom-minded message remains radical and politically charged. She leaves everything to follow him on his mission of love and justice, joining his disciples as a fellow apostle. Her family tries to physically fight the disciples to take her back, but are fended off as Mary is baptized by Jesus, likely in the same waters where she was earlier tortured. Freed from spiritual abuse by spiritual healing and acceptance; such is life with Christ.
Mary Magdalene portrays all of Jesus’ apostles with this sense of brokenness–these are men who have been hurt by the world in some way and have found healing and wholeness in the presence of Christ. Judas (Tahar Rahim) has lost his entire family to disease and Roman violence; he follows Jesus with resolute dedication, believing he will be reunited with his family when Christ brings resurrection in the kingdom. Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) shares a similar story, leaving behind his family and home to follow the man who transformed his heart, who made him feel born anew. It is Judas’ emotional longing for his family which motivates him to betray Jesus here; Judas is simply helping Jesus along in getting the kingdom of heaven established, making this one of the more interesting filmic portrayals of the character. This “kingdom” language is noticeably conspicuous; apart from perhaps Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew, it’s the most kingdom-minded Jesus film I can recall. The film wrestles openly with the gender dynamics and issues of traditionalist vs. progressive ideology as a single woman joins the ranks of the disciples following Jesus. That Mary has a sort of silent special connection with Jesus rankles the others even further; they’re both the kind of people who sit on hillsides and stare into the distance, whispering semi-philosophical/spiritual questions and ideas in their platonic-yet-intimate relationship. “Is that what it feels like to be one with God?” Mary asks Jesus in one of their hillside conversations. His eyes wide and wet with tears, he responds with warmth and wonder, “No one has ever asked me how it feels.” She smiles back, her eyes glistening.
There are few words and much teary-eyed gazing in Mary Magdalene, a dynamic I found to be one of the film’s strengths and personally moving. The beautiful score is the last one listed on IMDB for Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (Arrival), who tragically passed away earlier this year (Hildur Guðnadóttir is also credited as composer). Rich with sweeping strings and hushed piano notes, the music perfectly complements the stunning images of the Italian countryside serving as ancient Israel. Aesthetically, the film is simply marvelous to behold. Mara and Phoenix imbue their characters with a charged emotional energy even when they have little to say. Indeed, I can see how some audiences would find this dull or languid, but I enjoyed the stillness and the cathartic power these actors can communicate with only a glance or a smile. Phoenix’s Jesus is a nuanced, complex character, driven by his mission of social justice even as he remains internally haunted. He is charismatic without being a caricature, alluring even while being aloof. The film also celebrates and elevates women in ways few Christian films do–even as Jesus is a central figure, this is decidedly Mary’s story, with the narrative focused on her reactions and decisions. This means the Passion sequence is given short shrift, though the resurrection is portrayed and Mary’s role as “apostle to the apostles” is emphasized. I can only imagine for many Christian evangelical audiences, this reliance upon images, emotions, music, and extra-biblical scenes will feel heterodox or off-putting. I can also imagine that the film remains too spiritually-grounded and faith-filled to appeal to many secular arthouse audiences. Unfortunately, North American audiences will have to wait to see this, if they’ll ever see it at all–the film has no release date yet for the US or Canada. It’s tragic, although not surprising, that a story of a woman as spiritual leader and disciple of Christ remains silenced. The filmic Mary is chastised and silenced too, mostly by the apostles who regard her as a threat and social outsider. “I will not remain silent,” Mary tells them, embracing her apostolic vocation to share the message of Christ with others. Would that present-day women with similar pastoral, academic, and leadership vocations be heard by others, as men in positions of power take a posture of listening. This world, the world of Mary Magdalene, is one where the kingdom of heaven comes to earth; indeed, it is a realized eschatology, where resurrection is reality and the divine is present.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5360996/