Signis Statement on MARY MAGDALENE. UK/Australia, 2018, 120 minutes, Colour. Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwitel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim, Ariane Lebed, Denis Menochet, Tcheky Karyo, Ryan Corr. Directed by Garth Davis.
Clearly, a significant topic for a SIGNIS Statement. Mary Magdalene is one of the most significant new Testament characters. And, as a character, she has appeared in all the gospel films.
This Statement will have two aspects:
a basic comment and opinion on the merit of the film (with which, it is expected, other viewers of the film may disagree with);
an extended commentary on the significant themes and how they are presented.
An opinion on the merit of the film. From the point of view of a cinematic treatment of the Gospels, of Mary Magdalene, of Jesus himself and the apostles, the film is very well done. It can be recommended for those interested in an interpretation of the gospel story. It could also be used quite profitably for catechesis and as a background for biblical studies.
The film was directed by Australian, Garth Davis, co-director with Jane Campion of the series, Top of the Lake and, making quite an impact with his drama of the Indian orphan adopted by Tasmanian parents and seeking his origins, Lion. It is significant that the screenplay for Mary Magdalene has two women as writers, British writers, Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett. Which means that the writing has a female sensibility and a male director interpreting it.
The performances are quite strong. Rooney Mara is a quiet, different Mary Magdalene. Joaquin Phoenix is Jesus, looking somewhat older than usual, heavier than usual, more a Jesus from St Matthew’s Gospel rather than from St Luke’s, not a charismatic leader or affable, but rather stronger, stronger-minded, intense in his religious experience and expression. Chiwitel Ejiofor is Peter, older, black, expecting the kingdom on earth, as is Judas, Tamar Rahim, a pleasant man, an idealist, ultimately a disillusioned idealist about the nature of the kingdom and what Jesus should do and have done.
However, the title and focus of the film is Mary herself. One of the expectations of audiences would be the correlation of this dramatisation with the gospel texts. Mary is actually mentioned rarely. She is one of the women who follow Jesus according to Luke 8:2, where it is said that she had seven demons cast out of her (with the seven demons referred to in Mark 16:9). She is at the foot of the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus (Mt 27:56; Mk 15:40; Jn 19:47; Mk 16:1; Lk 24:8; and the longer narrative in Jn 20: 1-18). She is with the disciples after the death of Jesus and is the first to go to the tomb, finding the stone rolled away, encountering Jesus in the garden, going back to the upper room and announcing the resurrection (Mt 27:61)
As the film makes clear at the end, Mary has often been identified as a prostitute, something which emerged with the influence of Pope Gregory the Great in 591. The film then adds that the Vatican, in 2016, named her “Apostle of the Apostles”. In various film versions, she is also identified with the woman taken in adultery (John 8), with the woman penitent (Luke 7: 36-50), with Mary the sister of Martha. Here, the focus is on Mary according to the brief gospel references noted above and creating imaginative aspects of the story consistent with these texts – as is said at the end, stories are told according to “the essence” of the Gospels.
The screenplay uses a metaphor for, something of ‘the shape of water’, opening with Mary floating underwater and then surfacing, this image repeated in Mary’s anguish at Jesus’ suffering, and repeated again at the end of the film – with Mary explaining that when she was young, she would float underwater, holding her breath – finally surfacing and breathing again.
Mary is seen, with the family, at Magdala on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, tending the fishers’ nets. Later, as she follows Jesus, she will walk away from the nets, leaving them behind.
Almost immediately, Mary is called to assist at a difficult birth. Mary is quiet, contemplative, reassuring of the anxious and nervous mother, embracing her, quietly murmuring, calming her down, looking at her, enabling the mother to give birth to the child.
Almost immediately, the small community gathers at the synagogue for prayer, the patriarch of the family ritually reciting the Psalms. The traditional Jewish context, with scripture and prayer, is a significant feature of Mary’s life.
However, Mary is often disturbed. She goes out into the sheepfold at night, called back, her family worried about her, seeing that she has an evil spirit in her. There is initial talk of Jesus as a healer who has been casting out evil spirits. However, the family, father and her brother, decide to go through a ritual immersion to try to cast out the evil spirit but fail. They are particularly concerned because Mary is betrothed, unwillingly, and they see this is failure in her life. She is expected to have no other path in life but this one.
Mary goes to listen to Jesus. Jesus seems older than we expect. He has been on the road (and the thought goes to wonder about the hygiene of the times, the availability of water, the sleeping on the roads, the wandering life). Jesus is quiet, somewhat reserved. He rarely smiles. He seems to be more of the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel, somewhat stern, very straightforward. He has chosen the Apostles, speaks of the coming of the kingdom but he is also emphatic on the kingdom within the human person.
This perception of Jesus is that of Mary herself, which means that the film is really an interpretation of the Gospels, a ‘Gospel according to Mary Magdalene’. It is her religious experience, the events she participated in, a response to Jesus, communication with him, her view of Jesus, of Peter, Judas, of the apostles, of the crowds of followers.
This is a female experience of Jesus, reminding audiences of gender differences, male-female complementarity.
Mary listens to Jesus speak, she herself quoting at beginning and end the story of the woman with the mustard seed and its growth. She listens, she begins to smile, she identifies with Jesus, she is aware of his message of the kingdom within rather than the political upheaval that Peter and Judas seem to imagine. She experiences an immersion by Jesus and she is freed, she is liberated from evil spirits.
In this film, Judas is the apostle with whom she immediately relates. The screenplay offers an interesting interpretation of Judas. He has been married, had a daughter, wife and child had been killed by Roman oppression. This motivates his enthusiasm for following Jesus, expecting Jesus to proclaim the kingdom, overthrow the Romans, a new and hopeful beginning for Israel. He chats happily with Mary, smiles, no suggestion of his being a thief. In fact, right up to the entry into Jerusalem, he is enthusiastic. When he sees Jesus antagonise the authorities with overturning the money tables and speaking to the religious leaders, he begins to wonder. He participates in the Last Supper, kisses Jesus in the garden – with Mary asking him what he had done. He had contrived the soldiers coming to arrest Jesus in the expectation that Jesus would spectacularly assert himself and the kingdom would begin. Bewildered, ideals shattered, he tells Mary that he is going to be with his family and hangs himself.
Peter, on the other hand, is a strong character, talk about his leaving his young son to whom is devoted, instantly following Jesus, loyal to him, but with the earthbound expectation of the kingdom. He is also rather bewildered by Mary’s presence, by her closeness to Jesus, by her influence. It is clear that he finds it hard to comprehend how a woman can be present in their group. He discusses this with Mary – and has to learn from her how to respond to Jesus. (While the other apostles present, there is practically no individuation, even at the Last Supper when Mary sits on one side of Jesus, Peter on the other.)
There is an interesting episode when the group go to Cana, Jesus preaching, especially to a group of women who listen, one recounting a dire story of a woman being raped and dying. Jesus makes the point by asking her how long she can keep hate in her heart, and whether she is any better for holding on to the hate rather than letting it go in forgiveness.
Mary is very comfortable in Jesus’ presence. They clearly become friends. The screenplay presupposes the gospel perspective on the relationship. We use the word “celibate” and a word that is not as frequently used as in the past, “chaste”. One might think of the categories of Carl Jung, that Mary Magdalene dramatises the “anima” of Jesus, his feminine side. In fact, in dealing with of the people, Mary seems more “Jesus -like” then Jesus himself. To that extent, she is an interesting Christ figure.
The sequence where Jesus preaches to the crowd, speaks to them spiritually, he gives a sign of peace and his followers encouraged to enable others to give the sign of peace, Peter moving amongst the crowd, Mary in the same way.
Mary Magdalene encounters Mary, the mother of Jesus, whom Jesus has asked to come, especially in view of his expected death. Mary, mother, reminisces about Jesus as a boy, that he was tormented by others who said he had an evil spirit in him. Mary says she loved her son but she he was never completely his.
Jesus knows that he must go to Jerusalem. Now there vast crowds about him, there scenes of the immense temple, exteriors and interiors, the crowds gathered around him, with palms, and the chant becomes “Messiah”.
The main sequence in the temple has Jesus wandering, seeing the moneychangers, seeing the animals, especially the sacrificial blood on the ground, on the clothes of the slaughterers. He asks questions of the temple officials who say that this is the tradition, expected of the people. And Jesus reacts, overturning everything as the Gospel tells us. He is hurried away by Peter and Judas to the safety of the upper room.
The Last Supper sequence is very simple and brief, the breaking and sharing of bread, Mary prominently participating in this Communion.
The group hurries across a bridge to the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus goes to pray and the focus is on Peter, the apostles, discussing their puzzle about what was happening, Judas coming and kissing Jesus and the arrest.
The passion sequences are very brief, Judas, after kissing Jesus, rather enthusiastically explaining to Mary that he had set everything up for Jesus to proclaim the kingdom, that he was already being judged but would assert himself.
The scenes of the carrying of the cross and the crucifixion are very brief, effectively graphic in a way that will remind audiences of their own images and memories of the passion, Jesus carrying the cross, his blood, the falls, the nails being heard as they go into his flesh, Jesus on the cross, his mother Mary at the foot of the cross.
Mary Magdalene has been caught up in the crowd on the way to Calvary, injured, collapsing, once again experiencing the shape of water, recovering and going to the foot of the cross where Jesus, as he dies, gazes at her.
There is a brief Pieta sequence, Jesus on his mother’s lap, she bending over to embrace her dead son.
Mary is at the tomb, rocks being placed in the wall of the tomb, her falling asleep, waking, hearing her name, seeing Jesus sitting some way from the tomb, her going to be with him.
Mary returns to the upper room, the apostles express their fear, their disappointments, their not understanding – and it is Mary who has to explain to them that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, that it is in their hearts and that this is what they have to proclaim. Mary is the apostle of the apostles.
This is a film which should satisfy most Christian audiences. Catholics would respond well to it. It is a film which communicates the Gospel message of Gospel characters, not completely, but credibly to any open-minded audience interested in knowing Jesus in the Gospel stories better – with Mary Magdalene as a persuasive woman-guide.