Movie Review: Vague ‘Mary Magdalene’ quietly hopes to redefine a Biblical icon

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Mary Magdalene' (Jason Fraley)

Film history is paved with tales of the Christ, ranging from epic (“Ben-Hur”) to personal (“The Gospel According to St. Matthew”), faithful (“The Greatest Story Ever Told”) to controversial (“The Last Temptation of Christ”), glossy (“King of Kings”) to gory (“The Passion of the Christ”).

This Easter, we get a new take by “Lion” director Garth Davis, as “Mary Magdalene” redefines the disciple as the first eyewitness to the resurrection rather than a lowly prostitute. Her long overdue recognition as an equal to her male brethren was finally accepted by the Vatican in 2016. The film deserves credit for this admirable premise, while the script oddly leaves Mary on the outside of her own story with a vague narrative, deliberate pacing and ethereal tone.

The plot opens with Mary Magdalene (Rooney Mara) as a poor Jewish girl in the countryside of Judea circa AD 33. She serves as midwife for a woman during the pain of childbirth and rebels against her father’s plans for her arranged marriage. Naturally, the men of her village respond by labeling her “possessed” and attempting to drive out her “demons” with a waterboarding-style baptism. She finds refuge in Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) as one of his most trusted disciples.

The film has invited controversy since it premiered at London’s National Gallery in February 2018. The Weinstein Company planned a release for late 2017, but delayed it amid the Harvey Weinstein scandal. It’s since been criticized for “whitewashed” casting with Mara and Phoenix in roles that were historically Middle Eastern but all too often Anglicized in pop culture. Davis pushed back by pointing out supporting actors of African and Israeli descent with Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”) and Tahir Rahim (“A Prophet”) respectively playing Peter and Judas.

Be that as it may, Mara gets the nod to carry this Biblical “carol” as “the girl with the cross tattoo.” Her noble performance in the first 20 minutes appears to be the perfect vehicle for redefining Magdalene, but she unfortunately fades into the background in favor of Jesus for a rather familiar tale. Granted, it’s practically impossible and dramatically antithetical to make a Christ movie about anything other than Christ, but the title sets misleading expectations.

Most of the screentime in the second half of the film belongs to the enigmatic Phoenix, who plays Jesus as a mysterious drifter. While there should be mystery to the self-proclaimed Son of God, he should be charismatic, even revolutionary to launch the world’s biggest religion. Here, his eyes are too distant and his demeanor too detached to believably inspire followers.

The problem is less an issue with Phoenix’s performance than the puzzling narrative choices by screenwriters Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett. The script is oddly slow for a tale with such miraculous possibilities. Act 1 is painfully somber in the buildup to Jesus’ arrival, while Act 2 includes countless shots of catatonic faces lying on the ground and staring off into the mountains. Where’s the devout urgency? Provoking parables? Born-again inspiration?

If you don’t already know the Christ story, you’ll most likely be confused by the elliptical events, moping through his ministry and underselling the temple destruction (surely if there was a time to overturn the money tables and question the Pharisees, it’s 2019 America). Most disheartening is how Act 3 inexplicably rushes through Jesus’ trial and crucifixion with no sign of Barabbas, Pontius Pilate or the Centurion. Many know this story by heart so they can fill in the gaps, but that’s no excuse as a screenwriter; the screenplay should stand on its own.

Fortunately, Davis elevates the exercise with his direction, working with cinematographer Greig Fraser (“Rogue One”) to frame artful compositions (Mary and Peter lying in a field of tall grass) and sweeping landscapes (Jesus and Mary sitting far apart on different cliffs, then cutting to them suddenly sitting together). Their most dynamic moment comes as Jesus sees bloody goats being sold in the market, intercutting flashes of his bloody hands and feet on the cross, all triggered by the sound of jingling coins like Judas’ infamous 30 pieces of silver.

The betrayal’s aftermath is delivered in an extreme wide shot that gradually zooms in on Judas’ body hanging from a noose. The haunting image is just one of many moments carried by the music of late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who earned a pair of Oscar nominations for “Sicario” and “The Theory of Everything” before fittingly leaving us an angelic final score.

The serene music melds well with the feminist themes, which remain the saving grace. First, Jesus tells the women they are equal to their husbands. “Who do we obey? Should we leave them?” they ask. “Yes,” he says. Before long, Mary performs baptisms for the other women, showing her growth since her own baptismal drowning. Later, she repays the favor to Jesus by snapping him out of his exhausted trance after raising Lazarus from the dead: “I can feel the blood running through your veins. I can see the light in your eyes. You’re here with me.”

Despite such moments, you’ll still leave feeling like you don’t know Magdalene much better than when you came in. That’s a shame because we’d love to know more about her pre-Jesus back story and her post-Christ ministry spreading the good word. If you’re simply looking for a spiritual reminder this Easter weekend, the film offers the disciples’ Last Supper refrain: “His steadfast love is eternal.” As an objective film grade, it’s a 2-star take on a 4-star miracle.

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