SDG Reviews ‘Mary Magdalene’: Bible Film Has Good Intentions, Problems

Too often Mary Magdalene has been portrayed as a penitent adulteress or prostitute. A new film starring Rooney Mara as the Magdalene and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus seeks to set the record straight, but there are issues.

Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene and Tahar Rahim as Judas Iscariot (IFC)
Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene and Tahar Rahim as Judas Iscariot (IFC) (photo: Screenshot)

The Gospel of St. Luke is noted for its special attentiveness to the dignity of socially marginal or less empowered figures, including women, the poor, tax collectors and “sinners.” Yet even Luke spares only a single sentence for an eye-opening insight, too often overlooked, into the nature of the community surrounding Jesus’ public career:

Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means. (Luke 8:1-3).

This single reference is the only direct mention of Mary Magdalene in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ career before the Passion narratives and Resurrection accounts, where she comes to special prominence.

The first key point is that Jesus traveled with a community that included not just one or a few but many women, Mary Magdalene among them.

All four Gospels attest that women of this group, including Mary, were at the Crucifixion and the empty tomb. (Luke mentions Joanna here as well. Being married to a Suzanne, I’ve often wished we knew more about the otherwise unknown Susanna, but there it is.)

More than anything else, John’s moving account of Jesus’ resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene, even before appearing to Peter or the other ten, is responsible for Mary’s unique profile in tradition, art and imagination, from Gnostic literature to The Golden Legend of Blessed Jacobus da Varagine to The Da Vinci Code.

That early passage in Luke also notes that Jesus’ female followers included at least some women of means who acted as patrons for Jesus and his followers, paying the way for this itinerant prophet and his motley peasant band as they traveled the Galilean countryside. I can’t think of a single Jesus film that even attempts to do justice to this remarkable insight.

Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene, written by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett and starring Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus of Nazareth, is not, alas, that film.

Somewhere roughly between Risen and Last Days in the Desert in its narrative and interpretive sensibilities, Mary Magdalene presents an interpretation of Jesus’ ministry, passion and resurrection that seems in some ways — with important caveats — fairly traditional, viewed from a feminist perspective with some biblical justification.

One striking mark of Jesus’ public life was his subversive disregard for Jewish social norms in his associations and interactions with women, even foreign women such as the Samaritan woman at the well and the Syro-Phoenician woman, not to mention prostitutes and others, male and female, who were shunned as sinners.

Other rabbis taught only male disciples, not women. Respectable Jewish men did not socialize with women in public, even their own wives or close relatives. Indeed, women were discouraged from venturing out in public without a good reason; they were expected for the most part to be in the home.

In Temple worship and in the synagogue (as depicted in the film), women were segregated from men. Women were widely considered unacceptable witnesses in court. Even the marketplace was held to be a male domain.

Jesus’ countercultural acceptance of women as social equals of men is worthy of note and an important foundation of what Pope St. John Paul II called “true Christian feminism.”

Yet, ironically, in its enthusiasm for its exceptional heroine, Mary Magdalene actually undermines Jesus’ challenge to the patriarchal norms of his day.

Opening in Mary’s native Magdala, a fishing village on the coast of the Sea of Galilee, the film introduces Mary in the role of midwife, assisting young wives in bringing new life into the world, yet resisting social pressure to marry and have children herself. Her unconventional behavior also includes such shocking acts as going to the synagogue alone at night to pray.

Concerned that she might have a demon, her male family members take her at night to the sea and, in a disturbing sequence, attempt a baptism-like exorcism. In case it didn’t take, they also reach out to a wandering healer — a choice they will come to rue.

This, of course, is Jesus, to whom Mary confesses that she wishes she did have a demon, since then she wouldn’t be responsible for shaming her family. Under Jesus’ gentle questioning, she reveals that her deepest desire is to know God. “There are no demons here,” Jesus reassures her.

It soon becomes clear that, despite opposition from her family and misgivings among his own followers, notably Simon Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Jesus intends to allow Mary to follow him.

This accords both with Jesus’ egalitarian treatment of women and with the qualified status he accorded family bonds relative to the Kingdom of God. Yet it’s also depicted as Jesus’ unique response to one woman’s exceptional spiritual attunement, leading to a unique bond between them.

The film’s heroine is the sole exception in an otherwise all-male community, eliding the group of women in Luke. She has no wealth and has no role in providing for Jesus and his followers (as in most Jesus movies there is little attention to such practicalities).

Ironically, this Jesus is more patriarchal and less subversive than the Jesus of the Gospels.

The wish to give Mary Magdalene her due is a worthy one. Too many Jesus films, from Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings to Jesus of Nazareth to The Passion of the Christ, have promoted the ancient but dubious notion of Mary as a penitent harlot or adulteress.

Patristic and medieval Latin commentators commonly conflated Mary Magdalene with the unnamed “sinful woman” in Luke 7:36ff who anointed Jesus’ feet, often thought to be Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. (The name Mary was extremely common at that time and place, second only to Salome.)

It was Pope St. Gregory the Great, allegorically identifying the seven demons expelled from Mary Magdalene with the seven deadly sins, who popularized what became the dominant Western notion of Mary Magdalene’s wanton past (a reputation leading to the naming of “Magdalene asylums”).

A contrasting tradition, dating perhaps to the ninth century, acclaimed Mary Magdalene as apostolorum apostola, “Apostle to the Apostles,” a title ratified in 2016 by the Vatican in elevating Mary’s memorial to the dignity of a feast day. Eastern Orthodox tradition, ranking her among those saints honored with the title Isapóstolos, “Equal to the Apostles,” distinguished her from the “sinful woman” in Luke 7.

We’ve waited a long time for a Bible film to set out to reclaim Mary as Apostle to the Apostles, Equal to the Apostles. (As it happens, we’ve waited longer than expected. Mary Magdalene was slated to be distributed by The Weinstein Company in November 2017, just weeks after the allegations against Harvey Weinstein broke. The company filed for bankruptcy, and after a long delay the film has now been distributed by IFC. Ironically, a feminist Jesus movie was stalled by a man’s sexual misbehavior.)

Mary Magdalene gets at least some of the Gospel ethic right. Jesus proclaims the necessity of a radical change of heart, a willingness to abandon everything to seek God’s Kingdom above all. He has a deep concern for the poor. He insists on the absolute obligation to forgive, even telling a group of women that they must forgive the men who abuse them.

Yet the obligation to forgive is not linked, as it always is in the Gospels, with our own need for forgiveness from God. This Jesus never warns that if we do not forgive, we shall not be forgiven. Instead, forgiveness is presented as self-care, as the liberating alternative to carrying the burden of hatred. Nothing wrong with that take, but it’s incomplete at best. There’s a lot here about oppression, but very little about sin.

Jesus comes across as a sort of God-haunted mystic, earnest and sincere. Is he the kind of guy you would drop your nets and leave your father to follow? Well, no, but in fairness that’s hard to pull off.

He’s a worker of true miracles, certainly, healing the blind and even raising the dead. (Notably, there are no exorcisms, and it’s not clear whether demons exist at all in this narrative world. Jesus’ mother Mary reveals to Mary Magdalene that Jesus cried as a boy because the other children said he had a devil. Perhaps in this narrative world alleged demons are really angels?)

Those healing miracles seem to take a lot out of Jesus. Surrounded by people seeking healings and blessings, he nearly swoons, and raising a dead man wipes him out. (Perhaps the inspiration for this in the Gospels is the moment that Jesus feels power leaving him when the woman with a hemorrhage touches his garment.)

Jesus is clearly “at one with God” in a unique way, as Mary puts it, but there’s no sign of what theologians call Jesus’ filial consciousness: He always speaks of “God,” never “my Father,” at least that I noticed.

The Kingdom of God is at the center of his preaching. As in the Gospels, Jesus’ disciples misunderstand the nature of the Kingdom; Judas (Tahar Rahim) looks forward with fundamentalist innocence to an imminent eschaton and general resurrection that will reunite him with his slain family any day now. (Casting is all over the map: Jesus and Mary are white; Simon Peter is black; Judas is played by an actor of Algerian descent.)

As is too often the case, Judas is an almost wholly sympathetic figure. When Peter resists Mary joining the group, Judas defends her. When he betrays Jesus, it’s not for money, but to force his hand, somewhat like Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, and when he commits suicide it’s simply to join his family.

The Passion narrative and Resurrection are here, in a condensed, diminished form. Among other things, Jesus never emerges as a credible threat either to the Jerusalem establishment or to the Roman occupiers, so in practical terms it’s not clear why he must die.

There’s a muted Palm Sunday triumphal entry with no donkey, and a brief, abortive cleansing of the Temple in which Jesus is quickly overwhelmed and his followers barely spirit him away. (Mark’s Gospel describes Jesus disrupting normal Temple business, teaching and preventing people from carrying anything through the Temple, a more alarming event that makes Jesus’ arrest and trials more understandable.)

Jesus’ agony and passion are compressed by having Mary miss most of it. First she’s knocked cold by a Roman soldier in Gethsemane; then she swoons on the Via Dolorosa after briefly catching up with Jesus carrying his cross. This has the odd effect of leaving Mary almost missing her iconic place at the foot of the cross. (Jesus’ mother does get a touching Pietà shot.)

The famous Resurrection appearance is depicted in low-key fashion, with no great emotion or mistaking Jesus for the gardener. It’s almost as if Mary expected him to rise. Then, when she brings word of Jesus’ resurrection to Peter and the Ten, their initial incredulous response gives way to a final misunderstanding.

In this crucial twist, Peter decides that he believes Mary, up to a point: Jesus has risen and will return to usher in the Kingdom at a future time.

“Every man in this room is his rock, his Church,” Peter declares, pointedly excluding the one woman while also giving up the unique status conferred by Jesus in surnaming him Petros, Rock. (The idea of “Church,” introduced here for the first time, is unexplained.)

On these 11 men, Peter says, Jesus “will build his glorious new world, with one purpose and one message.”

“Your message,” Mary counters. “Not his.” She tries to explain that the Kingdom exists in our lives to the extent that we align with God’s will, but Peter dismisses this — and her, concluding that she is the divisive figure he always feared she would be.

In fairness, it seems the apostles really were confused about the Kingdom right up to Jesus’ ascension, still expecting Jesus to end Roman occupation at any moment. Only at Pentecost were their eyes really opened.

Will Jesus ever appear to Peter and the Ten? Will there be a Pentecost? Mary Magdalene has no interest in these questions.

The final note resonates with a familiar theme in Gnostic literature: Jesus’ message is misconstrued by the male hierarchy and carried on in truth by Mary Magdalene. (Casting adds unintended layers: Only the white woman understands the divine white man; the black man rejects the truth; and the naive Arab commits suicide.)

To top it off, the whole opposition between Peter and Mary, from a traditional Christian perspective, is unnecessary, a false dichotomy. It isn’t either/or, but both/and: The Kingdom is both “already and not yet,” inaugurated by Jesus but not yet revealed in its fullness. Peter isn’t wrong, and neither is Mary Magdalene. But the movie endorses Mary’s view and disparages Peter’s.

We’ve waited a long time for a movie to give Mary Magdalene her due. Mary Magdalene is an earnest, sporadically intriguing film, with flashes of a better film that might have been, but I’m still waiting.

Read more: How Mary Magdalene Gets a Bad Rap

Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

Caveat Spectator: Gory Passion violence and other disturbing images; references to rape and murder; mixed religious ideas. Mature viewing.