MARY MAGDALENE. Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim. Directed by Garth Davis. 120 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes).
With his first feature, ‘Lion’, Australian director Garth Davis crafted a splendid film – wonderfully acted by its international cast, the adaptation of Saroo Brierly’s 2013 memoir was terrifically crafted and intensely emotional. Davis and the film deservedly won a swag of awards, both from Hollywood and Australia, including the Australian Film of the Year from our very own Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting. When it came out that his next feature would star Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus, expectations were understandably high, tempered somewhat by the usual fears that an attempt to rewrite scripture was underway. With the film now finished, expectations prove to be more far more vulnerable than the Bible; though the script keeps most Biblical details intact, the overall film disappoints.
The opening frames sing with promise, capturing our attention with beautiful and thought-provoking imagery courtesy of cinematographer Greig Fraser. Otherworldly visuals of a floating figure hang on the screen, submerged deep underwater, shrouded by linen robes and washed with blue and green hues. One figure floats past a vast rockface, as though inexorably destined for the depths (or are they headed for the surface – this is a directionless abyss). Matthew’s parable of the mustard seed is gravely delivered by Mary in voiceover, and the mind races to connect the dots presented.
Mary (Rooney Mara) lives with her large family in Magdala. She feels unable to settle down and take a husband, as is expected of her by her devout Jewish community; she is adrift, looking for a greater purpose. Their strictly patriarchal society is stifling, and her father and her brothers, including Daniel (Denis Ménochet) and Joseph (Ryan Corr), worry about her. They hope that she will marry a local widower, but their matchmaking falls flat. Her sister, Rachel (Ariane Labed), knows that she cannot continue like this, but Mary cannot comprehend the consequences of her inability to conform. Driven to the brink by her incongruity, the men of her family organise her exorcism, a brutal ritual held by the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and a rite that stands in pointed contrast with the gentle baptisms that follow.
When Mary is unable to be shaken from her ensuing stupor, her family calls upon a healer, whom has been making waves in the local area with his teachings. This is, of course, none other than Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix). After his brief visit – ‘there are no demons here’ – Mary joins his followers and is baptised into his company, despite protests from her family.
Until Mary takes up with Jesus and his disciples, the film is an interesting study of femininity and faith in Jesus’ context. It’s deliberately paced to be sure, but the screenplay from Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett explores Mary’s isolation in a believable way. Mara, though saddled with a strange accent, fully commits to the interiority of the role, and her heartbreak at her family’s betrayal pierces the heart.
Frustratingly, once Mary takes to the road with Jesus, Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor, underutilised), Judas (Tahar Ramin) and the other Apostles, the wheels fall off the whole enterprise. The film encompasses the final weeks of Jesus’ ministry, including key events such as his resurrection of Lazarus, his Passion and his own Resurrection. All of this is told from Mary’s perspective – we don’t see things for which she was not present, such as Peter’s denial of Jesus – yet despite her intimacy to these crucial turning points in the Christian story, the film itself never feels crucial. If anything, it’s lifeless, boring. Literal miracles are performed, yet the depiction is so focused on realism and objectivity that it struggles to transcend the matter-of-factness of its presentation. Some of this falls to the casting of Phoenix as Jesus; he is a bold and intriguing selection no doubt, but his Son of God feels out of touch. He’s gentle, almost maternal, in his interactions with Mary, but there’s a certain grunginess too, both in his appearance and in his listlessness. A core element of Jesus’ mystique was his humanity, but Phoenix’s Jesus doesn’t feel much like a person.
There are a few creative decisions that alter the Biblical version of events. Judas, for instance, is given a backstory and a more noble intention – there are no thirty pieces of silver in Davis’ take. In fact, with Ramin’s wide-eyed, devoted performance, he becomes a tragic hero of sorts. But the true hero here is, of course, Mary. No longer a footnote, she is shown as more courageous, more compassionate, more attuned to Jesus’ emotions than her male counterparts. Yet despite the emotional religious rollercoaster upon which she finds herself, little is transmitted to the audience. It’s a respectful take, but a distant one too.
The film’s heart is undoubtedly in the right place. Its epilogue suggests that the film was written in part to address the old misconception of Mary as a prostitute, yet it doesn’t make her much more than a misunderstood outcast either. Mary’s awakening never carries the impact that it should or could, nor do the depicted moments of Jesus’ ministry. It’s fitting to come back to the parable of the mustard seed; there are kernels of greatness here, sown by filmmakers with the best of intentions, yet they fall on rocky ground.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out March 22.