Mary Magdalene Film: Best for Film Buffs

Inventive but neither Scripturally nor historically accurate as an interpretation of the life of the apostle to the apostles, Mary Magdalene (2018) is a niche film for those who enjoy arthouse flicks and won’t be bothered by how the film favors a 21st century artistic vision over fidelity to the Gospel narratives.

My own response to the film gives me strong reservations about how enjoyable, helpful, or inspiring the film will be to those who might be assumed to be its core audience: devout Catholics and Christians who are looking for insight, inspiration, and a scripturally faithful account. Instead, Mary Magdalene offers significant food for thought for the reflective film buff who is interested in general spirituality and portrayals of what “might have been” in the abbreviated time in which Mary Magdalene knew Jesus during his earthly life and just after the Resurrection. (You can listen to my five-minute commentary on Salt + Light Radio here.)

For another perspective on the film, read ‘Mary Magdalene’ is a film perfect for Holy Week by Sister Rose Pacatte, FSP.

Mary Magdalene is thoughtfully constructed, framed almost entirely by the viewpoint of Mary herself. With fine camera work and proficient acting by Mara Rooney (Magdalene) and Joaquin Phoenix (Jesus), the high production values strongly contribute to the artistic vision of the film. Directed by Garth Davis and written by two women, the film offers a welcome feminine approach to a world that is typically presented as almost entirely male, with a sometimes glancing reference to Mary the Mother of Jesus. (Here, the depiction of the Blessed Mother, by actress Irit Shelg, is brief but sensitive and nuanced.) With little detailed historical information about Mary Magdalene, the filmmakers creatively used these gaps to create her as a strong, active and contemplative woman whose desire for God drives her to seek out Jesus and follow him as one of his disciples—but not in the expected roles of wife and mother.

However, the script seems to overemphasize Mary’s role, so much that some scenes are quite unconvincing for New Testament times, and others contradict the Gospels’ account. Instead of bringing to the fore what gives Mary her true importance, the filmmakers focus on situations that aren’t in the Gospels—especially conflicts with the other apostles. In the film, Magdalene becomes the “outsider” disciple who interprets Jesus’ unspoken desires better than everyone else, thus setting her up against the other apostles (especially a rather shallow Peter). This disappointing false dichotomy (one of several) imposes a contemporary feminist agenda on the film, rather than portraying the richness and complementarity that Mary’s feminine approach would have contributed to Jesus’ ministry and the early Church. Even with Jesus, Mary Magdalene is more protagonist than disciple in her relationship with Jesus.

The skewed emphasis of the script is carried to the point that other characters—most notably Jesus—become rather one-dimensional and passive. Even the scene of Mary announcing the Resurrection stresses the conflict between Peter and Mary, rather than about the miraculous event!  Other imaginative scenes that I was eager to see—such as the scene of Jesus calling Mary Magdalene to follow him—were neglected entirely.

Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Christ is fair, but his scripted character seems passive and curiously uncommunicative with the apostles. Further on, Phoenix’s Jesus becomes a rather flat character who is so distressed about his coming passion and death that he stops responding to and teaching his apostles. The film’s stress on Jesus’ very human fear overlooks the love that motivates his adherence to the will of God the Father; it also completely leaves out Jesus’ claim to divinity (and divine Sonship), ignoring the miraculous nature of the Resurrection. At a certain point in the film, one might wonder why the disciples—and why Mary—would choose to follow Jesus in the first place. 

Taken by itself, the depiction of Mary Magdalene as a woman of prayer, strength, compassion, and conviction is quite appealing. But the flawed depiction of Christ devastatingly weakens the film overall: how can we truly know Mary Magdalene without understanding more about Christ, around whom she centered her life? And the film misses the point of some of the most important moments in Mary’s life—even when it depicts them—such as her response to the resurrected Jesus and her announcement to the apostles.

Windows to the Soul?

Despite its limitations, Mary Magdalene presents some compelling material for reflection. Mary is a convincing and engaging character whose closeness to Jesus is enviable. The way the filmmakers imagine her offers the discerning film viewer much to reflect on: her feminine perspective of the Gospel, her focus on prayer and desire for God, her commitment to discipleship, and the emphasis that she gives to transformation. The film beautifully depicts how Mary Magdalene, unlike the apostles, was able to accompany Jesus at the foot of the Cross, despite her great grief.

The theme of transformation, beautifully expressed both visually and narratively in the film, ties together both the film and Mary Magdalene’s journey of discipleship. For those mature in their faith who are comfortable with the more reflective, interpretive stance of an arthouse film, Mary Magdalene has much to offer.

(Note: With scenes of the Crucifixion and other strong scenes (of childbirth and an attempted exorcism), I would not recommend this film for children; due to some inaccurate depictions of Gospel events, this film may not be helpful as a formative tool for catechesis.)

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