Mary Magdalene (dir. Garth Davis), an extra-biblical story of how Mary (Rooney Mara) came to be a follower of Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix), builds on the premise that his disciples all expected the Kingdom of God to be a political and, if necessary, violent rejection of Roman rule. In that, Judas (Tahar Rahim) is the leading light, overshadowing the more cautious Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
Mary’s problem is that her fervent faith makes her less subordinate than a young woman should be in the life of the synagogue, and less likely to find a husband. Leaving to join the small group following Jesus means cutting herself off from family.
When her father asks Jesus if he means to separate a father from a daughter, Jesus says yes, and a mother from her son. It’s one of the few direct links to the biblical account of things Jesus said.
Indeed, apart from the Lord’s Prayer and when Jesus ejects the money-changers from the temple, there’s not much of the gospel narrative there. Even the crucifixion scene, which is portrayed graphically but sensitively, has no words from the cross, and when Mary (apostle to the apostles) tells Peter and the others that she’s seen the risen Jesus, they have a long argument about nothing that interesting, and none of the men thinks of going to look.
Feminist theology is right to question why women’s stories are so sparse in the Bible – what did Sarah think when Abraham took Isaac up the mountain intending to kill him? The marvellous 19th century “Woman’s Bible” by Elizabeth Cady Stanton had delights like suggesting that if Miriam rather than Moses had been leading the Israelites through the desert, they would have been out of there in 40 days not 40 years.
But this screenplay, by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, doesn’t improve on the message of Jesus by ignoring most of what the Bible says he said in favour of some invented dialogue (or from non-canonical sources). Perhaps Mary was the first to grasp that Jesus meant that the Kingdom was “within you”, but it would have been easier to grasp if she’d heard him say it.
In fact, as Phoenix mutters a lot through his beard, he might have said it. It’s a bit puzzling that, miraculous healings apart, Judas seems a more charismatic leader than Jesus, or Peter.
The film’s production values are good, though Sicily is a poor stand-in for the Holy Land. Its main saving grace is in Mara’s lead role – finely balanced, from her being exorcised by a rabbi for being a bit independent-minded to getting baptised, and then to be a baptiser herself, using a sort of threefold formula.
For a pitch about the place of women in society (then and now), it’s perhaps a bit odd that the film doesn’t touch on Luke’s record that there were many other women among the disciples. It’s no classic, but anything that gets a conversation going about the gospel story is better than its being ignored.
Win your own copy of Mary Magdalene
Thanks to our friends at Damaris Media and Universal Pictures, we have two copies of the new DVD to give away. To enter our competition, simply answer the following question:
Who plays Mary in this adaptation? Is it:
- Wayne Rooney
- Rooney Mara
- Mickey Rooney
Send your answer on a postcard to Mary Competition, The Church of England Newspaper, 14 Great College Street, London SW1P 3RX by 9 August. Alternatively you can enter online by emailing your answer to email@example.com, putting ‘Mary Competition’ in the subject line and including your postal address.