If there was ever a figure from the New Testament deserving of reconsideration, it’s Mary Magdalene. For centuries, Jesus Christ’s lone female apostle was painted by the church as a “fallen woman” – her narrative was taken from her by Pope Gregory in the sixth century. Since then, both history and Hollywood have been slow to give her her due. So it’s more than a little dispiriting that Lion director Garth Davis’ revisionist new film (well, newish – it was shot in 2016 before getting ensnarled in the whole Weinstein Company mess) doesn’t do better by her.
The last days of Jesus as told in the Gospels are, of course, open to any number of interpretations. We weren’t there. We don’t know. But Davis’ Mary Magdalene never transports you and makes you feel like you’re watching anything besides actors staging a well-funded passion play. Mara, whose beatific smile and angular features can resemble an Eastern Orthodox icon painting, does her best with not enough. As for the film’s Jesus, he seems completely miscast. Joaquin Phoenix can be a singularly intense and vibrant actor, but you never buy him as the film’s messiah. He speaks softly and carries a big shtick. Quiet compassion and grace aren’t his strong suits. Even the film’s topography feels off, looking more like the Italian countryside it is than ancient Judaea. Still, the biggest problem with the movie is how lifeless and inert it all is.
When we first meet Mary, she’s already a force of nature in her Judaean fishing community. Whether she’s midwifing babies or dragging her heels at the prospect of being married off without her consent, she’s determined, independent, and strong. She also yearns for more. So when Phoenix’s Nazarene wanders into her village with his small band of followers (including Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter and Tahar Rahim as Judas), she instantly knows that she’s found what she’s been searching for. Jesus’ apostles bicker over politics and bucking Roman authority, but according to Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett’s screenplay, it’s Mary and Mary alone who zeroes in on his message of love. She’s his truest believer, the only one who truly gets Jesus.
With any film titled Mary Magdalene, the story naturally hinges on the relationship between Jesus and Mary. And at times, it’s affecting. With subject matter this spiritually loaded, it would be hard not to be. But the problem with Davis’ film isn’t that it’s provocative, it’s that it’s not provocative enough. It only really comes to life toward the end, when Jesus and his followers enter Jerusalem, and Phoenix and Mara are finally able to make you feel the weight of their imminent entwined destinies – he as the son of God who will die for man’s sins; she as the living and unwavering messenger of his faith. No one can argue that Mary Magdalene isn’t a well-intentioned film. It’s just that while Mara convinces you that Mary deserves a more contemporary reappraisal, she also lays bare the fact that she deserves a better movie in which to accomplish it. C+