Director: Garth Davis
Screenwriters: Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett
Runtime: 120 mins.
Australian release date: 22 March 2018
Previewed at: Sony Pictures Theatrette, Sydney, on 19 February 2018.
In light of the recent rise of the #MeToo movement and the subsequent ‘men vs. women’ issues surrounding the campaign, Garth Davis’s Mary Magdalene should have a guaranteed audience because the Lion director has taken a very different path to the usual one in this portrayal of one of the Bible’s most damned women. Mary of Magdala is mostly depicted as a sinner, not a saint, a ‘fallen’ woman possessed by demons, but in Davis’s interpretation (from a script by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett), she is portrayed as a woman who simply showed great love for Jesus of Nazareth and his message and was much loved by him in return… as a follower and disciple. Indeed, here Mary is at the heart of Jesus’ story and is shown to be one his most ardent and faithful devotees, standing by him to the bitter end.
Mary Magdalene covers the few months leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix). Both these events were supposedly witnessed by his closest female admirer, Mary Magdalene (Rooney Mara), who is considered by some, and certainly here, as one of Christ’s apostles. Mary had rejected the forced marriage planned for her by her conservative Jewish family and left her village to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with her spiritual master and his all-male group of followers. Davis’s film shows how Mary was an early feminist in the sense that she was independent and not afraid to ask questions while absorbing the teachings of her mentor, a man whom she obviously admired and respected. These actions alone would have singled her out for being too forthright but she is also shown spending nights alone with her teacher as they discussed his lessons and ideas.
Hard on the heels of his debut Oscar-winning feature Lion, Davis took a chance to bring this controversial story to the screen, for whether you are a believer or not, his aim is to make you think about the reputation and intention of a woman out of step with the mores of her time. Filling in for the Holy Land is southern Italy, with filming taking place in Puglia, Sicily, Campania and, particularly, in Matera, Basilicata; Davis is not the first to use these regions when on the biblical trail - many others, including Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bruce Beresford and Mel Gibson, have shot their biblical pics in this harsh, barren terrain. The remoteness (stunningly captured by the lens of Greig Fraser) helps you to think about the possibility of this being an accurate account of one of the most contentious stories in the Gospels. After all, Mary was surrounded by a group of men who were devoted to their master and who no doubt would have felt threatened by this up-front, lone female. Jealousy was certainly exhibited by Peter and Judas Iscariot, played by Chiwetel Ejofar and Tahar Rahim respectively, who were particularly close to Jesus. Mara conveys Mary as a questioner without answers but one who is prepared to seek them out regardless of the consequences; Phoenix plays Jesus rather too thoughtfully, so he comes across as dull instead of enthralling. Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett’s screenplay regrettably lacks spark despite the momentous events being depicted. It is tough going at 120 minutes long.
Mary Magdalene is an interesting speculation. It does make you consider the words of Pope Francis who, in 2016, set out to redeem the much maligned saint by declaring that the newly proclaimed Mary Magdalene feast day was a call for Christians to, “reflect more deeply on the dignity of women, the new evangelization and the greatness of the mystery of divine mercy.” That’s reason enough to create a film that will be sought out by those who believe in the Bible but it’s a curiously dull experience for those who don’t. Co-producer Iain Canning has stated, “Every generation approaches their own re-telling or re-imagining of stories based on the contemporary time... We felt there was room to tell the story of Mary Magdalene - that the female perspective of this particular story of the life and death of Jesus Christ was a new way in to that story and that it would also shine a light on contemporary issues." That’s true but this Mary Magdalene lacks the bite of Lion.