Mary Magdalene is a movie that does not totally reflect life of saint

July 29, 2019 at 12:37 p.m.


By John Mulderig | Catholic News Service

NEW YORK – Director Garth Davis' "Mary Magdalene" (Focus) is a respectful but off-key profile of the biblical saint (Rooney Mara) that gets a few things right but many wrong.

Grown-ups well-grounded in their faith will be able to sort the wheat from the chaff. But they'll find that, although Davis' picture is often pleasing to the eye, as scripted by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, it's generally flat in tone.

Additionally, there's an easily discernable feminist agenda underlying the project. Thus early scenes show us a restless, troubled, misfit Mary, a woman unsatisfied by the prospect of family life and unable to accept that this is the only future open to her according to the rules of her society.

Things come to a head when Mary's relatives, with her brother Daniel (Denis Menochet) in the lead, try to force her into an arranged marriage with a local widower. This crisis coincides with the arrival of Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) and the Apostles in Magdala. Mary's decision to join them on their travels once they leave the town is set up as a gesture of rebellion since it means that no man will ever accept her as a wife.

The portrayal of the Twelve is revisionist, to say the least. St. Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) comes off as an egotistical villain, while Judas (Tahar Rahim) is depicted as well-intentioned but misguided.

While Peter is focused on fomenting a military uprising against the Romans, and establishing Jesus as an earthly king, Judas is entirely spiritual in his outlook and aims. Poignantly, he longs for the resurrection of the dead so that he can be reunited with the deceased daughter he deeply loved.

Phoenix's Savior, meanwhile, preaches in the cadences of a beat poet and with the demeanor of a Dennis Hopper character from the 1960s trying to explain the meaning of life to squares. While there's a predictable overemphasis on the social justice aspect of his message, the screenwriters, to their credit, partially balance this by also stressing the sacrificial and salvific nature of the death that awaits him.

In fact, one of the best scenes in the film, from a theological perspective, finds Jesus in the precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem where the bloody robes and hands of the priests as they sacrifice lambs trigger a vision of his forthcoming sufferings on the cross. Yet this is followed by dialogue with a Temple official and an enraged interaction with the moneychangers that are both out of harmony with the Gospels.

A climactic confrontation between Mary and Peter takes place after the Resurrection – to which event Mary is here not only the first but the sole witness. Peter is made to represent, that always-dreaded term, the "institutional Church," whereas Mary is a free, prophetic figure.

Their exchange hints, moreover, that while Mary – who has understood Jesus' teaching better than the others all along – will preach the truth in the future, Peter will instead give his gloss on what Jesus said. The clear implication being that orthodox Christianity has skewed or obscured the real doctrine of Jesus.

Onscreen notes preceding the final credits contradict Pope Gregory the Great's inference that the Magdalene is to be identified as the sinful woman who anoints Jesus feet at the end of Luke, chapter seven. (Mary is first mentioned by name by Luke at the beginning of chapter eight.) They also present an overly broad interpretation of a recent Vatican document dealing with her.

The film contains mature religious themes requiring discernment and some gruesome and gory images. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III – adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R – restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

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By John Mulderig | Catholic News Service

NEW YORK – Director Garth Davis' "Mary Magdalene" (Focus) is a respectful but off-key profile of the biblical saint (Rooney Mara) that gets a few things right but many wrong.

Grown-ups well-grounded in their faith will be able to sort the wheat from the chaff. But they'll find that, although Davis' picture is often pleasing to the eye, as scripted by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, it's generally flat in tone.

Additionally, there's an easily discernable feminist agenda underlying the project. Thus early scenes show us a restless, troubled, misfit Mary, a woman unsatisfied by the prospect of family life and unable to accept that this is the only future open to her according to the rules of her society.

Things come to a head when Mary's relatives, with her brother Daniel (Denis Menochet) in the lead, try to force her into an arranged marriage with a local widower. This crisis coincides with the arrival of Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) and the Apostles in Magdala. Mary's decision to join them on their travels once they leave the town is set up as a gesture of rebellion since it means that no man will ever accept her as a wife.

The portrayal of the Twelve is revisionist, to say the least. St. Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) comes off as an egotistical villain, while Judas (Tahar Rahim) is depicted as well-intentioned but misguided.

While Peter is focused on fomenting a military uprising against the Romans, and establishing Jesus as an earthly king, Judas is entirely spiritual in his outlook and aims. Poignantly, he longs for the resurrection of the dead so that he can be reunited with the deceased daughter he deeply loved.

Phoenix's Savior, meanwhile, preaches in the cadences of a beat poet and with the demeanor of a Dennis Hopper character from the 1960s trying to explain the meaning of life to squares. While there's a predictable overemphasis on the social justice aspect of his message, the screenwriters, to their credit, partially balance this by also stressing the sacrificial and salvific nature of the death that awaits him.

In fact, one of the best scenes in the film, from a theological perspective, finds Jesus in the precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem where the bloody robes and hands of the priests as they sacrifice lambs trigger a vision of his forthcoming sufferings on the cross. Yet this is followed by dialogue with a Temple official and an enraged interaction with the moneychangers that are both out of harmony with the Gospels.

A climactic confrontation between Mary and Peter takes place after the Resurrection – to which event Mary is here not only the first but the sole witness. Peter is made to represent, that always-dreaded term, the "institutional Church," whereas Mary is a free, prophetic figure.

Their exchange hints, moreover, that while Mary – who has understood Jesus' teaching better than the others all along – will preach the truth in the future, Peter will instead give his gloss on what Jesus said. The clear implication being that orthodox Christianity has skewed or obscured the real doctrine of Jesus.

Onscreen notes preceding the final credits contradict Pope Gregory the Great's inference that the Magdalene is to be identified as the sinful woman who anoints Jesus feet at the end of Luke, chapter seven. (Mary is first mentioned by name by Luke at the beginning of chapter eight.) They also present an overly broad interpretation of a recent Vatican document dealing with her.

The film contains mature religious themes requiring discernment and some gruesome and gory images. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III – adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R – restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

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