For centuries, the “Greatest Story Ever Told” had it all wrong. Mary Magdalene, one of the most recognizable women in the Gospels, was not a prostitute, but an Apostle just like Peter or Judas. It was Pope Gregory all the way back in 591 who started this misrepresentation, which was left unaddressed by the Vatican until 2016, when they restored Mary back to her place as one of the most important people in Jesus’ circle. That is an extraordinary correction — whether you consider the narrative one of history or just a story — and it is spread by this pretty extraordinary film.
Written by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene is about the seemingly maniacal dedication of followers and agony of a messiah, as presented through a woman’s experience. Rooney Mara plays the title character with a quiet delicacy, often observant as Mary finds a place in the world and a cause in which to place her profound empathy. She wasn’t just any spectator, this telling argues, so much as proof that at the core of Jesus’ teaching was of a feminine influence. At the beginning of the film, Mary wants a choice with her body and her life — she does not want to go through the cycle of simply being married off and reproducing, as expected and pushed onto her by her brothers and father. At the same time, Mary isn’t welcomed in the same worshipping space as the men, despite the strong importance of faith in her life. Her brothers and father go as far as concluding that she needs a forced exorcism and nearly kill her by drowning in the process. Mary soon finds an out when a healer named Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) comes to town, and decides to join and become one of his followers. Mary’s connection with Jesus is unlike the ones he has with the men (including the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Peter and Tahar Rahim’s Judas), in part because she understands that the kingdom that Jesus speaks of does not concern splattering Roman blood, but in sharing love.
Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene
It’s through that opening little bit that the film struggles to get going, but when Mary’s journey along with the other apostles begins the story really starts to take shape. That’s not to say that Mary is defined by the men in her life, but rather her story and her ideas are given life by conflicting with Jesus’ other apostles. Which helps introduce a conflict that gives Mary Magdalene its richness and casts it into a modern conversation about the purpose of Christianity. If you believe that Christianity is about personal enrichment and how it’s a toll for achieving your own goals removed from Jesus’ teachings, then the film sees you as a misguided Judas. Instead, Mary is the hero of this telling because she sees Jesus as a way to serve others. As seen in one scene involving Mary and Peter, having been instructed to spread Jesus’ word, come across a village of starving Samarians. The scene asks, if the purpose of Jesus is to just make more Christians, you leave the dying behind — and that’s Peter’s first instinct. But if you see the purpose of Jesus to comfort the burdened and to show love and compassion, you behave as Mary does, by bringing kindness to those who need it.
Mary Magdalene doesn’t change any major beats regarding Jesus and the Apostles that anyone who has any familiarity with the story wouldn’t already know. Christ gains a following performing the miracles like bringing a dead man back to life, with Greig Fraser’s handheld cinematography immersing you in the hysterical crowds that now feature new believers. And once Jesus’ followers speak loudly enough of him being a messiah, a term he lives in fear throughout, the Romans crucify him. With the film’s editing gradually focusing on Jesus without losing sight of Mary, Mary Magdalene creates a definitive, rich foundation of raw compassion. With the film compelling you to look past previous iterations, and to engage the overall tale for its almost bizarre beauty: a radical movement, led by a tormented man of select words, who speaks of a kingdom, a kingdom that only human beings can make a reality.
Joaquin Phoenix in Mary Magdalene
Leading it all, Rooney Mara is excellent in a role that displays her precision in her acting and reactionary acting — she is the most subdued actor in the entire film, but it never once makes her work any less powerful. It’s in the film’s more contemplative moments, she creates a compelling internal life of Mary. Listening and witnessing in an emotional silence. As well delivering not only one of the best portrayals of Jesus, but one of the most unique is Joaquin Phoenix. Shaggy, weary, but able to do things like make the blind see, Phoenix’s Jesus is a human being who is visibly tormented by the power and wisdom that works through him. It’s an incredible approach to such a famous being: no word is wasted as his infirmed voice comes through clenched teeth, his head often tilted back when preaching as if trying to maintain balance. His magnetic expression of a leader with an immense power behind his sharp eyes and careful words, is also one who performs miracles as if he is almost doomed to it.
Then there’s Garth Davis’ poignant uses of the holiest of cinematic expressions, that of the magic hour — that time in between night and day when the sky is a watercolor mix of purple, orange and sometimes even pink, revealing a type of complex beauty before it evolves to darkness or light. The power of Mary Magdalene very often starts with its imagery, which builds from the barren huts and monochromatic costumes, displaying the nuanced expression of its lighting. When characters speak on calm cliff sides as the day turns to night, which happens often, it only compels you to engage into the film only deeper. It would as well be a massive mistake to not mention the music of Mary Magdalene, on its own adding a significant, sorrowful importance: it’s the last film score by the late forever great Jóhann Jóhannsson, who is co-credited with cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir. Jóhannsson was a composer whose power came from his ability to create precise atmosphere, regardless of the project. Mary Magdalene is a strong testament to Jóhannsson’s meticulous arrangements, his mournful string pieces paired with the wailing winds and prayers, further color Fraser’s extreme wide shots displaying Jesus’ followers as seeds in a futile land.
Chiwetel Ejiofor in Mary Magdalene
Mary Magdalene is one of those films in which long passages of it feel weightless, the culmination of so many vivid filmmaking entities contained in one lasting picture. Simultaneously ravishing and eye-opening, the film uses its grace to preach about the potential of storytelling — especially when it comes from the underrepresented, oppressed perspective. Davis’ movie contemplates miracles and acts of love entirely through the lens of profound compassion. Still, I imagine there will be audiences quick to dismiss Mary Magdalene because it seems too Christian or not Christian enough. And to be honest, to each his own, but as someone who is agnostic, the power still hit for me. The unapologetic lean into a social justice reading of Jesus’ teachings, through the eyes of Mary was a unique perspective, telling a story that wears its religiousness on its sleeve but still doesn’t condem the non-believers. And as its runtime washed over me minute by minute, Mary Magdalene revealed its standing, its composure. It’s a film that has the composure of a meditative oceanic current. Some will attempt to rush through it and will drown. Others will stay clam and float, reaping the benefits of its weightless pleasure.