Cinema’s depiction of religion has rarely been greeted with warmest of embraces, with the release of each film typically greeted with some level hostility and controversy. From D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille through to Martin Scorsese and Mel Gibson, our search for life’s answers has seen directors interrogate religious folklore onscreen ever since the Lumière brother’s first private screenings at the end of the 19th century.
The director of the Oscar-nominated Lion, Garth Davis, is the latest to step across the minefield by attempting to tell the story of Mary Magdalene in this eponymously titled film. Until 2016, when Mary was finally recognised by the Vatican as one of Jesus Christs’ disciples and the first to spread the word of Christianity after his ascension, her name was marred by accusations of prostitution. Davis’ well-intentioned film attempts to cement her newfound authority in the Christian world by reasserting her as a modern feminist icon.
Rooney Mara takes on the role of Mary who begun life in the Israeli coastal town of Magdalene as a fisherwoman expected to follow the traditional paths laid out by her brother and father. But her troubled soul was ready to defy the limitations of 1st-century society, and upon hearing the inspirational word of God spoken by a new spiritual leader she abandons home and sets out to follow in his path.
But it’s not just any old preacher she turns her life upside down for. They don’t come much bigger than Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) and their bond grows as they travel together, accompanied by his disciples including Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Judas (Tahar Rahim). From there we follow the well-known story of Jesus through to his arrival in Jerusalem, his crucifixion and rising from the dead.
Rather than following Mary as she took up the mantle to spread the word of God, the film fizzles out and simply leaves us a few title cards about her religious status in the modern age. It feels like either only half of her story is told, or the wrong part of her life was has been revealed. The years of dedication she committed to Christianity after the death of Jesus appear as nothing more than a footnote, making the film more like The Story of Jesus, with a special guest appearance by Mary Magdalene.
The likelihood of this film upsetting the Christian community is slim as it takes more of a humanist approach and avoids adopting a sanctimonious stance by avoiding Holy Scripture quotations. Religion brings with it a passionate belief but by taking the safe middle ground Mary Magdalene is mostly a sedate and unchallenging stroll through history.
Both Mara and Phoenix give reasonable accounts of themselves in their respective roles with earnest support from Ejiofor and Rahim. The sharp eye of cinematographer Grieg Fraser is probably the standout feature capturing the naturalism of the coastline environment quite majestically. Ultimately, the film is not able to make the most out of the many good ideas it suggests are waiting to be injected with the energy and life they deserve.