MOVIE REVIEW: Mary Magdalene
MARY MAGDALENE— 4 STARS
So often (yeah, you Mel Gibson), films telling the final passion narrative days of the enduring and suffering of Jesus Christ try to soar to the very heavens they idolize. They aim for the showy and shiny in their quest for shouted glorification as if that noise is required. Those offenders are often bombastic to the point of pompous, where their glory is misplaced by selfish highfalutin hubris. To see a film value and place the core humility of the subject up front is more than just a cause for attention. It’s a welcome rarity to cherish.
Presenting the effeminate point-of-view of what was seen, heard, and felt by the titular saint is the striking aim of Oscar-nominated director Garth Davis’ nearly lost film Mary Magdalene. A pair of proud women, playwright Helen Edmundson and Little Ashes screenwriter Philippa Goslett, distill these well-known Gospel rising action and climax components into their sparest forms. This film’s slightness is meant to simplify proceedings to their truest essence. Mary Magdalene contains the bare minimum of theatrics.
The result may be painstakingly slow at times, but its grounded firmness is precisely its beauty. There is a calmly effective empathetic power to that method and approach. The specifying or sermonizing is scant and still stoic. The poignancy is pitched and still powerful. The grace is consoling and still genuine. All of that is mightily impressive.
Two-time Academy Award nominee Rooney Mara, one of the most consistent, solemn, and captivating actresses of her generation, molds Mary Magdalene into a woman of gentle and devoted resolve. The film chronicles how she came to meet Jesus after purging her own demons and remain in his supportive circle through his death and resurrection. Mara’s Her co-star and fellow multiple Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix plays the Messiah from Nazareth who his closest constituents call rabbi. Jesus and his apostles, including Chiwetel Ejiofor’s stalwart Peter and Tahar Rahim’s eager and talkative Judas, are on the road to Jerusalem to reclaim proper practices of faith amid the greed and political occupation of the era.
LESSON #1: BE A FOLLOWER — In this setting, the follower’s path comes from a question of, namely, what God has asked of you. That notion demands a personal search for a cause, belief, or level of will beyond one’s self. To follow is to actively learn and get involved. For Mary Magdalene, first impressions overcame shame and turned into bonding conversations. Baptism and greater commitment soon followed moving her forward with her teacher and leader. Her presence in having equal dedication challenges the next lesson.
LESSON #2: THE PLACE OF A WOMAN — Societal norms and antiquated gender roles have long devalued the surface optics of spouses, mothers, and other positions of women. Mary earned a place of participation only held at the time by men, some of whom felt weakening discomfort by her presence and voice in the group. Nevertheless, Mary brought greater attention of women to the teachings of Jesus. While Rooney Mara is sometimes criticized for her willowy blankness, her constitution of calm control fits this role. Her stares of adoration and anguish and carefully chosen words galvanize more than they ever grandstand.
The very same can be said for Joaquin Phoenix. Matching Lesson #2, there is a choice scene in the film when the mouthpiece of a group of suppressed wives follow Mary and approach Jesus. They ask who to honor first, God or their husbands. Without missing a beat and offering dutiful respect, Phoenix’s Jesus gives them the proper answer. Reflective and reserved moments like that one and many others in Mary Magdalene really celebrate the acute and discerning demeanor of Phoenix’s supporting performance.
LESSON #3: BE A WITNESS — Call the life of Jesus Christ what you want, legend or truth. Both designations would need attestants imbued and inspired to become testifiers. Likewise, the actions of prophecies and miracles need observers for validation. Like a true beholder, Mary had unjaded vision and faith. She related what she followed and what she saw internally to her beliefs and then outwardly to others.
Shot in the stony and serene hills and shorelines of southern Italy three years ago, Garth Davis’ sophomore feature after his Best Picture nominee Lion was a casualty of the demise of the scandal-burnt Weinstein Company. IFC Films acquired the domestic distribution rights and what they rescued is pure pedigree. This was an artistic effort that demanded to be seen.
Lion and upcoming Dune cinematographer Greig Fraser’s lenses rely strongly on natural light and textures of the location settings for a lean aesthetic detailed by a shrewd production design by Fiona Crombie of The Favourite. Equally and intentionally meager yet effective are the costumes from five-time nominee and Anna Karenina Oscar winner Jacqueline Durran. The typifying tonal finish to this freedom from glamour is the steady and austere final score of the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson collaborating with cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir (whose strong strings you will hear again with Joaquin Phoenix on-screen in October’s Joker). The rescue of this movie follows a greater rescue of the titular historical figure.
Three years ago, after centuries of inaccuracies and misconceptions, the Vatican issued a decree that elevated Mary Magdalene to “Apostle of the Apostles,” granting the woman equal importance and authenticity with the famous dozen top disciples of Christ. That’s right. A woman now creates a baker’s dozen. The same saint that was slighted and mislabeled for generations as a promiscuous prostitute was now lionized as an “example of a true and authentic evangeliser.” As the first witness of Easter, Mary Magdalene is a person of special testimony who always had more to her significance. This film honors that magnitude with virtue of its own.