This is an origin story unlike any other. What the filmmaker (award-winning director Garth Davis of ‘Lion’) is attempting to get across to the world, and he does a fair job of making his message clear, is that Mary Magdalene was a good human with substance. He does this especially with the summation at the end of his movie. Mary was a woman with great spiritual convictions who was not a prostitute but someone who followed Jesus, touched people in the name of Jesus and believed, as his apostles did. The title of the film alone may lead you to think that this is just another movie that’ll condemn and denigrate her, like so many before it has done. This feels different. It is different. It’s often said that Mary’s presence in Jesus’ life was that of a temptress. She was vilified as an adulterer to simply blame, as women often were, maybe still are.
However, at the end of ‘Mary Magdalene,’ there’s an epilogue that says Mary was present at the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. That it was a popular misconception to even suggest she was a prostitute. More interestingly, in 2016, she was formally identified by the Vatican as an Apostle. She was their equal and the first messenger of the resurrection.
She was never truly recognized for her role in history. As the only woman amongst all of these men, she was made out to be, basically, a whore… to put it bluntly. ‘Mary Magdalene’ sets out to correct that.
We meet the young woman, played by Rooney Mara, when she’s living and working in a small fishing community. She’s about to be forced to marry someone with whom she doesn’t love, most likely, barely knows. Her father has ordered her to wed and being the sort of freethinking flower-child that she is, she bolts. Well, I got a little ahead of myself.
See, what happened is, she has seen, from afar, this Jesus fella (Joaquin Phoenix), who had gotten a lot of buzz about town. Naturally, she just had to check him out for herself.
Mary instantly likes what she sees. She’s very drawn to his charisma, his energy, and spirit. Who wouldn’t want to be around someone who loves life and spreads messages of goodwill and hope? Doesn’t hurt that he helps baptize people several times a day and therefore probably doesn’t smell of sheep dung constantly. He also promises those who follow him that a kingdom awaits them at the end of their journey. All things considered, many willingly and happily march with him toward Jerusalem, spreading the word of God and love along the way.
She wants in. The last straw for her is when her father insists there’s a demon living inside of her and almost drowns her in an attempt to force the demon out. He chillingly screams at her when she asks that she be allowed to marry on her how timeline. He accuses her of shaming her family. How dare she desire to be her own person, right? She discovers Jesus is leaving town in the morning to move onto the next so, here’s her chance. It’s now or never. She’s told she’ll never be allowed to return. Those terms are acceptable to her. She gets in line with the others, including Peter (Ejiofor) and Judas (Rahim).
Soon, she’s baptized by Jesus in what looks like water as cold as Lake Michigan in October. And now you know why actors are paid the big bucks. I would have been screaming for the green screen on that shot, but that’s me. Anyway, Jesus has asked they all spread his message to the people in his absence. ‘You go here while I get this group here,’ kind of thing. Word of what he’s capable of has gotten out so he’s swamped. Mary takes the job so seriously that she helps those who Peter cast as, ‘Beyond help.’ She comforts them, prays with them, gets them water and soothes them as they slip away into the great beyond. It’s here where Peter sees her true worth… and sees doubt in his own. He thought they were only to baptize those who could follow not waste time on those who couldn’t carry the load! He watches her show true mercy and is humbled by it.
There was something fascinating about what we see next. Jesus being hailed the Messiah. Rome catching word. His mother, the Virgin Mary, making her appearance. These things happen in the third and most intriguing act of the picture. The pacing picks up when we get here and observing Mary and Mary face one another… it seemed surreal. I’m not religious but was seduced by the idea of it. Mary gives Magdalene a bone-chilling warning to prepare herself for the loss. The words haunt her. The story doesn’t get into why Judas was who he was, only glosses over the fact that he sold Jesus out but does touch upon his guilt some in the end.
Except for the pacing and the absolutely gorgeous musical score that overpowered much of the intense dialogue, the movie, genuinely, captivated me. Mara does walk around with a dumbfounded look on her face throughout the flick that never really speaks of her maturity, but she was tender when she needed to be and had a strong presence.
Phoenix was heavy. He looked the part; acted the part. During the crucifixion, he became Jesus. He was so convincing, I’d believe we were watching a long-lost video of the historic event itself. This man who wanted only peace and love was killed for it. Incredible story. Deep film. Outstanding performance by Phoenix. A little bit of a yawner BUT, good for a matinee or cable watch. Curious? I wouldn’t miss it. Lover of music? I wouldn’t miss it. Joaquin Phoenix fan? Don’t even think about missing a chance to see this on the big screen.