I tend to not like religious movies – I find they are often purile, badly acted, with unbelievable scripts, weak conversations, and poor-quality special effects.
Give me a deep-thinking movie, instead, any day. There’s more theology, spirituality, and religion in many “secular” movies than most of the overtly “religious” ones.
The movie, Mary Magdalene, is different. This, for me, is a “religious” movie that fits comfortably in the mainstream of quality movies. Well-known, Academy Award-nominee actors Rooney Mara (Mary Magdalene), Joaquin Phoenix (Jesus), as well as Chiwetel Ejiofor (Peter), and Tahar Rahim (Judas) – all billed above the title – are part of a cast that helps to make this a good film. It is directed by Garth Davis (director of Lion – nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture).
I had rushed into the theatre part-way through the shorts, and when the opening sequence began with a woman underwater, my immediate reaction was to wonder if I had slipped into the wrong theatre. It was an artistic, dreamy start – one that, sadly, was not followed by other sequences in this vein.
The movie is quite slow moving. There’s a lot of moving around the Italian-standing-in-for-the-Holy-Land countryside.
A backstory is constructed for Mary in Magdala. In the Bible, there is not much about Mary Magdalene. The New Testament says seven demons had gone out of her (Lk 8:2); and in Mk 16:9 (in the longer ending of Mark), it has that Jesus had cast them out. She was present at the crucifixion, and a witness of the empty tomb (Matthew 28:1–8; Mark 16:9–10; Luke 24:10; John 20:18). She was, either alone or as a member of a group of women, the first to testify to the resurrection of Jesus. John 20 and Mark 16:9 explicitly indicate she was the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection
In the West (but not in the East) Mary Magdalene was conflated with a prostitute. Pope Gregory the Great, around 591, set that essentially in concrete. It took more than a millennium for that identification to be undone, and for her role as apostle to the apostles to be (once again) recognised in the West. This movie is part of that rehabilitation. And some of what Mary Magdalene says to Peter is pretty thinly veiled reprimanding of the Western (RC/papal) treatment of her (and of women generally).
There are connections between what Jesus says in the Gospels and what he says in the film, but there is nothing artificial about the speeches and conversations. The miracles are not over or underdone. Nor is the crucifixion or resurrection. Jerusalem and the temple complex (CGI & Greenscreen) are believable. Just. The paucity of Roman presence is not. The take on Judas’ motivation for his betrayal fits.
Here is a film in the arthouse “mainstream” that I think we Christians do not need to be embarrassed about. But it did not give me any significant new insights; nor, I suspect, will it lead to significant conversions…