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Review: Mary Magdalene Is a Flat Retelling of the Greatest Story Every Told

As it moves through Jesus’s greatest hits, the narrative focuses less and less on Mary Magdalene until her life is beside the point.

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Mary Magdalene
Photo: IFC Films

While it might be called Mary Magdalene, Garth Davis’s film is just another standard retelling of “the greatest story ever told,” differing in only superficial ways from the countless cinematic depictions of Jesus that have come before it. For one, the producers have used colorblind casting for the roles of the disciples. But perhaps more radical is that the story is told from the perspective of a woman, or so it seems at first glance. As it turns out, Mary Magdalene (Rooney Mara) is merely a passive witness to all that happens to Jesus Christ (Joaquin Phoenix), the straight (wo)man to his nonconformist antics.

Mary Magdalene’s most engrossing moments are its opening scenes, where we see Mary in her milieu in Magdala, a quiet village on the Sea of Galilee. Davis immediately reveals himself to be on the side of the believers, as the film attempts to unite the historical and the divine visually before subsequently doing so in narrative terms after the appearance of Jesus and his disciples. Magdala is presented as a deeply sensual place, a liminal realm on the border of land and sea that marks it as a gateway between the spiritual and physical worlds. Davis hammers this home by drowning the soundtrack in an omnipresent roar of waves and nonstop, intrusive, portentous music that bring even the most mundane moments to a fever pitch. The ambient noises and orchestrated music combine to form a dirge without respite, endowing the proceedings with an incessant solemnity that quickly grows tiresome.

The film presents Mary as a kind of proto-Jesus, a midwife and healer who’s stymied by her traditional Jewish society and its patriarchal elites. Reimagined through the lens of the #MeToo era, she’s portrayed as a modern, liberated woman constantly imposed upon by men in authority. When she refuses to accept an arranged marriage, she’s forced against her will into a seaside exorcism, where she’s submerged in an attempt to drive out her demonic will.

Then along comes Jesus and his disciples, similar but opposite to the toxic masculinity in her midst. This group is also a patriarchy led by a rabbi, just like her village society, but for reasons that are never wholly made clear, she chooses to follow this patriarchy instead. She’s submerged yet again in the same sea, this time by Jesus in a baptismal rite. While the narrative mirroring here is intentional, Mary’s reasoning for choosing one social grouping over another, nearly identical one, remains opaque. Mara portrays the character as a stoic, inscrutable cipher, and the audience is offered little insight into her thoughts and internal life.

While Mary Magdalene is fairly successful at placing the story in its Jewish context, which is often erased from Hollywood depictions of Christ, no one is especially well delineated or developed outside of Jesus. The villagers are superficially drawn, the disciples are stereotypes, and the Romans are almost never seen. Since there’s very little development of his ideas, Phoenix’s longhaired, wide-eyed Jesus resembles a new age spiritual guru more than the leader of a radical new religious sect. His disciples do little more than bicker with one another, and as the plot mechanically moves through Jesus’s greatest hits, the narrative focuses less and less on Mary Magdalene until her life feels completely beside the point.

Cast: Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim Director: Garth Davis Screenwriter: Helen Edmundson, Philippa Goslett Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 120 min Rating: R Year: 2018 Buy: Video

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