Mary Magdalene

Aida Vucic | 12/03/2018

She was slandered throughout the history of Christianity as a prostitute, and has been reincarcerated as a radical free spirit in Garth Davis’s Mary Magdalene. Davis steers away from the previously charted waters, and focuses on Mary’s story; but his light and solemn interpretation turns monotonous very quickly.

The film portrays Mary Magdalene (Ronney Mara) as a pioneer; rejecting the norms of marriage and in turn being condemned by her own family as being either mad or possessed by the demon. Her family seek the help of Jesus of Nazareth (Joaquin Phoenix), a travelling preacher of Christ’s Kingdom set to free the people of Israel from the Roman’s command. Tasked to repel the dark forces within Mary, Jesus unquestioningly resolves that Mary is neither mad nor possessed, but rather enlightened. Mary is entranced by his kindness and words, pledging herself to his cause and leaving her family to follow Jesus and his disciples.


It’s here that the story trudges on the familiar path, revisiting events; including the last supper, the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. The film, being centred on Mary, and not wanting to rehash these events shown in countless movies past, treats them as trivial, spending little time on these moments and instead allotting time to scenic visuals and introspection. With a voiceover reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s Song to Song, that also starred Rooney Mara and similarly felt elitist, Mary Magdalene panders to the art lovers who scoff at Hollywood’s blockbusters and seek pleasure from long, ambiguous films, void of any hint of the mainstream.


Beside the film’s haunting score and wondrous cinematography, which marry perfectly, its greatest accomplishment is its representation of Mary’s role in advancing Christ’s legacy and her unwavering loyalty and devotion to him. Though Mary’s reputation has been reclaimed, her role has received little acknowledgement and seems to be well timed with the #timesup and #metoo movements that are seeking equality and recognition for women.


Phoneix’s casting as Christ is questionable, yet his interpretation of the son of Christ as fatigued and sombre, is moving. At last we have a depiction of Jesus that is not perfection. Joaquin portrays him as rather complaintive, lamenting the uncertainties of his life. Phoenix brings a certain measure of playing to the back of house, but never lets it overpower his interpretation of Jesus as a worn, weary and tired warrior; holding forces of violence back from his message of peace. Mara, on the other hand, appears fragile and timid as Mary, which slightly negates the female empowerment that the film would otherwise possess. Nevertheless, the real-life couple share amazing chemistry during their scenes, which, while powerful, never delve into the conspiracies surrounding their relationship, simply leaving the audience pondering and speculating about what they meant to each other.


Mary Magdalene is unnecessarily ponderous. Long stretches of silence, interwoven amongst haunting score, beautiful landscapes and costume design to rival the most hipster bedding Instagram, create a film that feels like it wants to be transformative, but frankly isn’t. Garth Davis shows his skill with imagery, but fails to engage audiences.