There seems to be a common trend with a lot of biblical films. They have extreme reverence for their source material but tend to lack substance and depth. While there are obviously exceptions to that, I can’t really name a lot of religious movies that I truly consider great. Even Mel Gibson’s mega-hit The Passion of the Christ doesn’t do it for me, relying more on graphic violence than the actual teachings of Christ.
When I saw the description for Mary Magdalene, I assumed this would be a more realized movie. Proclaiming to tell the true story of the highly misunderstood woman, Mary Magdalene is a bit of a mess. Belabored pacing, a lack of characterization, and barely any plot add up to a film that doesn’t seem to understand exactly what it wants to be.
I know there’s not a lot of material to work with, but that doesn’t mean Mary should be a supporting character in her own movie.
Director: Garth Davis
Release Date: March 16, 2019 (UK), March 22, 2019 (Australia), April 12, 2019 (US)
Beginning in the town of Magdala, Mary Magdalene opens with an agonizing birth scene. Showing her compassion for others, Mary (Rooney Mara) aids an unnamed woman in fighting through the pain of bearing her child to the Earth. The scene is clearly meant to establish a personality for Mary but comes off as confusing since we’re told absolutely nothing about the characters present.
From there, the film then shows a couple of sequences or Mary living in her town and speaking with her family. She seems to be lost in this world and is afraid of an arranged marriage that her father has planned. Running into the temple and speaking in tongues one evening, a few of the town elders take Mary to the lake during the night and attempt to exorcise the demons from her. The next morning, Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) comes to visit her and reassures her no demons are present. Feeling a connection to the man, Mary attends one of his sermons where she starts to feel at peace. With basically no build-up at all, Mary runs off to join Jesus and the Apostles and leaves her regular life behind her.
After that, the movie drifts between scenes of Jesus performing miracles and the Apostles bickering before culminating in the crucifixion and resurrection. At times, it comes off as a “Greatest Hits” of Jesus’ life, but the most curious thing is that Mary is hardly present. She appears in every scene and is often the focal point for the camera, but Mary Magdalene seems to be more infatuated with Jesus than its titular character.
For a film boasting to tell the true story of history’s most misunderstood women, there really isn’t any kind of character development here. Rooney Mara does a fine enough job with the material given, but she typically is looking longingly into the distance or remaining in the background of a moment. There’s a scene about an hour in where she helps some dying villagers, but she and Jesus hardly spend time together and her relationship with the rest of the Apostles is barely established.
That’s really the worst part of Mary Magdalene. I can appreciate not wanting to embellish details of Jesus’ life, but a film about people coming together over the power of Jesus would benefit from characters actually talking about Jesus. It’d be nice to learn the backgrounds of the characters instead of getting literal sentences about their past, dejected looks, and then cuts to the next scene.
While all of the Apostles are present, only Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Judas (Tahar Rahim) are given any real lines. Apparently, they both had families and lost them, but that’s the extent of information we learn. Jesus doesn’t inform Mary of how he met them, Peter shifts between accepting Mary to rejecting her a few scenes later, and Judas seems to alter his opinion of Christ on a whim. It’s incredibly rushed and that has the side-effect of making the film feel schizophrenic.
I think the worst aspect has to be Phoenix’s performance. Maybe the incredible power that Jesus contained drained him at times, but Phoenix seems to be in extreme pain in every scene. If he’s not being barely audible, he’s making scrunched faces and leaning his head back like he’s possessed by an apparition. One bystander even says “This is the devil’s work” and it’s hard not to agree with him. I think Phoenix mixed up his performances here, or his audition tape for Joker was filmed on-set and used in the film.
Even with that confusing acting, it’s hard not to feel compelled by specific moments in Mary Magdalene. There’s a reason that the words of Jesus have stuck around throughout human history and this film at least captures those moments well. In the town of Cana, Jesus lectures everyone about how women should be equal to men and that leads into a baptism montage. The mixture of cinematography, direction, and music nearly brought me to tears.
The Passion sequence is also so much better than the nonsense Mel Gibson gave us. It may be super rushed, but it’s not gratuitous and the famous moment of The Virgin Mary cradling her dead son is heartbreaking. There’s a couple of establishing shots that are equally breathtaking, showing off the wonderful countryside of Italy as if time hadn’t progressed. A lot of care went into recreating the setting of 33 AD, which at least makes Mary Magdalene a feast for the eyes.
I just can’t get over how scattershot the rest of the movie is. It’s truly baffling that a movie focused on Mary Magdalene couldn’t figure out more ways to incorporate her into the plot. Jesus takes the center stage while Mary is relegated to side-character status. She goes from knowing literally nothing about Jesus’ teachings to lecturing the Apostles in the final moments and it doesn’t feel earned. Even Jesus’ crucifixion seemingly comes out of nowhere, which is an odd thing to write.
Really, you need to have prior knowledge of the material to get the most out of Mary Magdalene. Maybe the intention wasn’t to show us the true story but give us a visual representation to replace our imaginations in church. That still doesn’t explain why the marketing is based on revealing Mary’s real purpose, which is barely covered here.
So while all the pieces should add up to a quality whole, Mary Magdalene just falls short. It’s not a bad film, but something that could be made better if it focused more on its titular character. Maybe there wasn’t a lot of source material to work with, but that doesn’t excuse the unfocused narrative at play here.