I grew up thinking that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute (to use the word I knew then) who anointed Jesus’s feet, though the Bible makes no such assertion. My image of Mary derives more from her portrayal in The Last Temptation of Christ and Jesus of Montreal — two of the best cinematic evocations of the meaning of Jesus, if by “best” we mean the meeting place between the highest artistic craft and the most honest seeking. There’s a more recent meaningful movie reference to Mary in last year’s Roma, where a party of the privileged carries on regardless of the suffering around them, while the Magdalene of Jesus Christ Superstar sings “I don’t know how to love him” in the background. That song was about the conflict between, or confusion of, erotic desire with apprenticeship on the path toward loving God, neighbor, and self — a conflict or confusion certainly worth considering. The other most well-known treatment of the idea, in The Da Vinci Code, doesn’t take it seriously enough to make it more than a pretend-mystical hook for a silly conspiracy thriller, although it does try to suggest, with the mystics, that there is no conflict or confusion there in the first place.
And in the newest cinematic Mary Magdalene, directed by Garth Davis from a script by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, Mary isn’t confused at all. I don’t think anyone was expecting a film with that title to appear unironically in 2019; it's also a genuine surprise that it wasn’t made for the Christian market, nor does it aim for the kind of dry, “noble” distance that makes large-scale biblical epics such as Ben-Hur seem like Downton Abbey, upstairs, with sandals. The fact that Mary Magdalene contains decent performances (especially Rooney Mara’s Mary, not a doe-eyed holy innocent, but a leader who finds her voice by speaking), and makes an honest effort at exploring the less familiar parts of one of the most familiar stories in history makes it worth our attention. That attention may even be rewarded by an idea or two. It’s thoughtful, honest, yet not earth-shattering cinema, although it does bring its own revelation.
In approaching Mary Magdalene, the first thing we might notice is just how little attention we might have paid to Mary before. In a coda, the movie identifies the assertion that she was a sex worker to be a myth created by a sixth century pope. He did this perhaps to marginalize her message — the primary point of which goes to the heart of it all: that you don’t need to be a man to be a Christian — and maybe even more threatening to some, that you don’t need to be a man to be fully human. It’s unfortunate that the movie implies there would have been something wrong had she actually been a sex worker, although Mary Magdalene suggests that she was indeed the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus with perfume, stimulating scandal projections in the eyes of those who haven’t consciously integrated their own shadows. As with its portrayals of Jesus’s words and actions, the movie is content with broad brushstrokes, rather than painting by numbers.
So what we have is an interesting flight of imagination: Who was this woman, mentioned in the Gospels by name more often than the majority of the apostles, known by many as “apostle to the apostles,” but otherwise usually talked about as if she wasn’t quite there?
We can assume that one from whom, according to tradition, seven demons were cast out didn’t exactly fit in to the world in which she lived. In the movie she is the subject (target? even victim?) of an attempted exorcism by male family and village members for the “crime” of not jumping into an arranged marriage. But Mary’s “sin,” as far as some of her brothers might see it, may have more to do with not paying them enough attention: She wants to pursue her own thoughts, and as it has been for so many women before and since, the men can’t imagine such motivation as anything but sick, or worse. Less so, today, of course — the very existence of this film is evidence of that, and Mary Magdalene passes the Bechdel test in its first five minutes. The men in her village may see in her femininity the source of her receptivity to the demonic, but the movie has compassion even for people like them, trapped in worldviews so distorted that they make a superficial sense of security dependent on something like self-harm. She finds her self-rescue in the form of dropping everything to follow Jesus. And it’s not just to follow, but to support him, to be his ally; she sees that his healings, resurrections, preaching to the masses, and the burden of wanting to save people from themselves without misleading them into a retributive revolution come with extraordinary pressures. That’s one of the more intriguing aspects of Mary Magdalene, for Mary both yearns for something more than her mundane life, and sees that it involves participation in liberating the voices and stories and bodies and lives of women — and she is invited into leadership, helping the male apostles consider what they might have missed about the teaching of their master.
In that sense, it really does try to take seriously Mary in particular, and women in general; it’s appropriate that in a movie attempting to elevate Mary, Jesus doesn’t dominate. Joaquin Phoenix is a decade and more older than Jesus at the time of the events here, but along with Chiwetel Ejiofor's Peter, and especially Tahar Rahim as Judas, he brings something new to characters whom it can’t be easy to play. Jesus is angry, but also exhausted (and turning over the money grabbers’ temple tables has never looked less like an organized protest and more an intervention in chaos). When Jesus is executed in Mary Magdalene, it’s because that’s what the powers that be did to people who said the kind of things he said. The politics of Jesus are neither under- nor over-played, and his invitation to step into love instead of violence is clear.
And yet, there’s something lacking. There are two specific references to forgiveness, focused on how anger eats us up inside. But it’s a missed opportunity to elaborate on forgoing revenge without denying the impact of the act being forgiven, or the need for accountability. The resurrection of Lazarus, as in so many previous depictions (though not the Bible), ignores the role of the community in unbinding him, and setting him free. Strangest of all, for a movie that both tries to be historically authentic and wants to respect a person —and an entire gender — that has been marginalized, often because of body-denying sex-negativity, Jesus on the cross is kept in a loincloth, not, as he would have been, naked. This is an age-old fallacy, which seems to suggest that showing a naked man is worse than showing a tortured one. Mary Magdalene doesn’t fall into the same trap as The Passion of the Christ, which implied that it was the very cruelty of Jesus’s death that made it sufficient, rather than the teachings and life something to be emulated, but in this climactic moment, it shies away from embodiment.
That’s a pity, for at the end of it all, it’s all about embodiment, humans finding their voices through speaking, finding what they want by figuring out what they don’t, being willing to consider throwing it all away in favor of gaining their soul. Mary Magdalene the movie may stumble, but it honors Mary Magdalene the person by allowing her to be as ordinary, and as extraordinary, as the rest of us.