A feminist parable more than a revealing portrayal

A feminist parable more than a revealing portrayal Rooney Mara stars in Mary Magdalene
Mary Magdalene (12A)


Whatever we may say about the Biblical epics of yore, they exuded power. Even the run-of-the-mill  (or should I say De Mille) ones. The problem with Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene is that it tries so hard to be ‘authentic’ it sacrifices the iconic benchmarks of scripture to subdued sidebars.

It’s a plodding film that only warms up after Jesus loses his temper in the temple. That’s after about an hour. Then it goes downhill – and downbeat – again.

The ‘Judas kiss’ goes for nothing. There don’t even seem to be witnesses. As for the resurrection, we don’t see it. Joaquin Phoenix – a growling, angry Christ – is just ‘there.’ You can’t see this Phoenix rising from the ashes.

One thing a celluloid Jesus has to have is presence. We need to feel the awe when he appears. Otherwise he’s just another cast member. Phoenix portrays him more as a haunted figure than a leader.

But of course the film belongs to Mary of Magdala. A postscript informs us that her former perception as a prostitute is apocryphal. That her role as an apostolic emissary is exemplary. That she’s now seen by the Vatican in a thoroughly favourable light.

This is fine, and one always likes to see misrepresentations of scriptural figures put to rights. Unfortunately Davis goes too far with this, creating her as an almost sacred figure. From the moment we first see her draped in a shroud we seem to be watching another Mary – Jesus’ mother.

I grew up thinking of Mary Magdalene as a byword for sin, for mankind’s redeemability. She was the lost sheep, the fallen woman who went from vice to virtue.

For Davis she seems almost messianic in her proselytising. If she isn’t the Prime Mover for him she’s very close to it. She survives an exorcism. She refuses a marriage arranged by her father. It’s she who ‘forgives’ Judas – even if he can’t forgive himself.

Once the apostles induct her into their fold she almost usurps their function, taking it into herself with all the coy purity Rooney Mara is able to muster up with those delicate features. This is the Magdalene of Jesus Christ Superstar rather than anywhere else  – except by now she does know how to ‘love’ the Saviour.

The film is well intentioned but it moves at a leaden pace. The raw poetry of the Bible is flattened out by an ersatz devoutness. The direction is clunky, Davis’ vision bifurcated between vague pokes at sanctity mixed with his only partly successful attempt to re-invent a ‘lost’ soul. Rooney does what’s expected of her but somebody like Frances McDormand would have been more cerebral in the role.

The release of this mutedly revisionist work would seem to have been timed by Davis to rebut Mary McAleese’s recent remarks about the church being misogynistic. It’s a kind of feminist parable in disguise.

Which, again, is fine. Just don’t take it as ‘gospel.’

** Fair

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