Movie Review: ‘Mary Magdalene’ an Impassioned Tale of Christ’s Apostle to the Apostles

Movie Review: ‘Mary Magdalene’ an Impassioned Tale of Christ’s Apostle to the Apostles

In the best sequence in the new biblical drama Mary Magdalene, Jesus approaches a group of oppressed woman to deliver his message of forgiveness. 

But one of the women tells Christ of her sister, who was raped and murdered by her husband and other men after being accused of adultery. Is she supposed to forgive them?

“How does it feel,” Jesus replies, without missing a beat, “to hold on to that hatred in your heart?”

“Those men were consumed by hatred as well.”

Mary Magdalene is earnest and well-intentioned and for many may represent a familiar slog through well-tread biblical territory. One fellow journalist at a press screening at Prague’s Kino Atlas, bless him, fell asleep ten minutes into the movie and lightly snored throughout the remainder.

Directed by Garth Davis (Lion), the film is ostensibly about the lead character, Mary Magdalene, a Jewish woman and follower of Christ who was present at both his crucifixion and his resurrection. She was deemed a reformed prostitute by Pope Gregory I but more recently awarded the title "Apostle to the apostles" by the Roman Catholic Church

In Mary Magdalene, she’s played with quiet intensity by Rooney Mara as a woman lost within her own religion and considered ‘disturbed’ by her own family, including brother Daniel (Denis Ménochet). But when a travelling healer approaches her with care and kindness, she discovers newfound meaning in her life.

In any film that contains Jesus Christ as a featured supporting player, the son of God usually commands some attention. And tenderly played in what may be one of the all-time great portrayals of Jesus on film, Joaquin Phoenix seizes control of the movie and doesn’t let go. His soft-spoken turn as Christ is so lovingly rendered that it threatens to convert members of the cinema audience. 

Also excellent here are Chiwetel Ejiofor (as Peter) and (especially) Tahar Rahim, whose deranged portrayal of Judas represents one of Mary Magdalene’s more unconventional interpretations. 

Otherwise, Mary Magdalene straddles a fine line between appealing to both a Christian community seeking a biblical account of these events and contemporary audiences after a more… realistic version. Scenes depicting Christ’s miracles, for example, are deftly handled to allow for multiple interpretations. 

Despite the record box office numbers of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, we don’t get many mainstream biblical movies these days (and after the box office performances of Exodus and Noah, that number may continue to dwindle). 

But Mary Magdalene is a thoughtful tale more interested in the teachings of Christ - and differing interpretations of them - over big-screen spectacle, and that’s a rare and welcome thing. This won’t be as controversial as Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, but it takes similar risks and generally succeeds. 

Director Davis has put a lot of care into his depiction of Mary Magdalene, and even if the title character sometimes feels lost inside her own story, the result is a thoughtful, poetic, even-beautifully crafted depiction of Christ and his apostles that represents one of the most tender big screen versions of this story.

Mary Magdalene was shot in rural locations throughout Southern Italy including Matera, Gravina, and Trapani, all authentically captured by cinematographer Greig Fraser. Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson provided the soft, soulful score to the film, his final feature before his death earlier this year.

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