Mary Magdalene has an image problem. This follower of Jesus was called a “sinful woman” by Gregory I in 591. Papal infallibility being what it is, the label stuck until the Church reversed it a millennium and a third later, in 1969. And you thought Galileo had it bad. Even today, the image of Mary as a reformed prostitute lingers.
The movie Mary Magdalene hopes to change that, by portraying Mary (Rooney Mara) as a strong, curious woman who leaves her family to follow the rabbi Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix), and becomes chief witness to his death, burial and resurrection. And no, they don’t get it on.
But as directed by Garth Davis (Lion), the movie backs into its feminist interpretation of the Christian Gospels, spending much of its two-hour runtime treading well-worn ground, with Mary mostly hovering uncertainly at the sidelines. Jesus’s greatest hits include the cleansing of the temple, raising Lazarus from the dead and extemporizing The Lord’s Prayer.
It’s only in the final quarter of the film that Mary comes to the fore, sparring with the other Apostles over the meaning of the teacher’s words. His message of a new kingdom is not a cry for revolution as some would have it, but a metaphor. “The kingdom is here, now,” she insists. “The world will only change as we change.” Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) isn’t having any of that. “You have weakened us,” he snarls after the resurrection she witnessed and he missed. “You weakened him.”
Mary Magdalene may have a hard time finding an audience. Non-believers won’t have much to connect with, while conservatives may not appreciate the revisionist, anti-patriarchal message. And as pure entertainment it’s wanting, plodding when it means to be reverent.
On the plus side, the score by Iceland’s Jóhann Jóhannsson, one of the last he completed before his death, is a powerful accompaniment. And the story is an important corrective missive aimed at a bureaucracy that’s slow to change. Your movie, Mary. Your move, Gregory.