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Movie Review

If you came of age in Magdala about 2,000 years ago, you had two basic career tracks to follow. If you were a man, you became a fisherman. If you were a woman, you married one.

Life was simpler then, and smaller. And for women, the world must’ve seemed particularly small. They had few rights and even fewer opportunities.

Some women accepted that as their lot. But not Mary.

She’s of marrying age now, this pretty girl of Magdala. She has the eye of Ephraim, a nice-enough, respected-enough fellow. But when the time comes to settle down with him, to throw her lot in with Ephraim for better or worse, she can’t do it. She won’t.

“I’m not made for that life,” she tells her brother, Daniel.

“Then what on earth were you made for?” he demands. “Do you want me to bind your breasts and shave your head so you can be a man?”

There’s only one explanation for Mary’s reluctance to wed, Daniel believes: She must be possessed. Mary’s father lures her to the shore of Galilee where Daniel and a few other men, including the rabbi, are waiting. There they grab her and pull her under the water while chanting prayers.

Again. Again. Again.

After the failed exorcism, Mary’s sisters and friends dry her off and care for her, but they’re worried. They’ve heard of a healer who’s been traveling nearby—a man of great power. They ask Mary’s father to bring him to Mary, and the father, who truly loves his daughter, does so.

The man kneels beside her.

“What is it you long for?” He asks.

“I’m not sure,” she says. “To know God; know God’s presence.”

The man smiles. “It’s always been here,” he says. “All it needs is your faith.

“There are no demons here,” he tells her tenderly. “Rest now. Rest in the light.”

Mary turns to watch him go and, suddenly, she knows.

In Magdala, women had but one choice: to marry. But Mary senses another: to follow. And so she will—to the very end, and to the beginning.

Positive Elements

Let’s sidestep for a moment whether the Mary Magdalene we see on screen here is the same one we read about in the Bible. This movie’s Mary is an admirable character in her own right.

She embodies two important virtues: strength and tenderness. When we first meet Mary, she’s helping a woman who’s about to undergo a Cesarean section—a very new, unfamiliar and (given the day’s lack of analgesics) painful operation. “I’ll be here with you,” Mary tells the woman. “I won’t let you go.” And throughout the procedure, Mary looks the soon-to-be-mom straight in her eyes, giving her the strength to hold on.

Mary shows that same courage and willingness to be there—to be present—throughout the film. She spends time caring for the sick and dying. She gently helps people into salvation. And when Jesus Himself is on the cross, she doesn’t look away: Instead, she—as she did with the pregnant woman—looks into His eyes, sharing that most painful, most intimate moment with Him.

Spiritual Content

First, the good news: Mary Magdalene isn’t some prequel to Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code (which suggested that Jesus fathered a baby through Mary M.). The movie doesn’t posit that Jesus and Mary were lovers, or anything close to it. And sometimes, the movie offers scenes of real spiritual beauty.

But its reliance on Scripture is pretty sketchy.

Granted, a two-hour movie on Mary can’t wholly rely on the Bible: She’s mentioned just a dozen times in the four Gospels, so any film on her will need to extrapolate some dramatic leaps. But Mary Magdalene doesn’t just fill in the gaps we see in Scripture: It bends and sometimes breaks what is there.

Mary’s “exorcism,” mentioned above, is an example. According to Luke, Mary Magdalene was once possessed by seven demons: In the movie, Jesus told her she was never home to even one, suggesting instead that she was the victim of an unforgiving patriarchy.

And while Mary Magdalene pulls plenty from the Bible, it also leans on Gnostic texts, too—especially the apocryphal Gospel of Mary (which many scholars believe was written in the second century about Magdalene, though others say that Jesus’ mother may have been its subject).

After Jesus’ death, for example, Mary comes to tell His grieving disciples the Good News: that she’s seen Jesus, and that the kingdom of God is here and now, not some temporal kingdom as the men assumed. It doesn’t take long for Peter to respond angrily: “Why would He come to you alone?” Peter goes on to refute her interpretation of Jesus’ teachings, using language that feels as if it was pulled and paraphrased directly from the Gnostic Gospel of Mary: "Did he then speak secretly with a woman, in preference to us, and not openly? Are we to turn back and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?" Again, note the jealousy here not present in the Bible.

That said, the movie doesn’t embrace Gnosticism, either—certainly not the complex mysticism outlined in the Gospel of Mary. Rather, it seems to have its own theological saw to sharpen, one that both confirms and rejects some of what orthodox Christianity teaches.

Mary tells Peter that the kingdom of God is an invisible kingdom of the here and now. “It grows with every act of love and care.” Peter insists that the real kingdom of God is coming—that Jesus will return and usher in a “glorious new world.” The movie suggests that these two ideas are pitted against each other. But I was always taught—and maybe you were, too—that both of these kingdoms were in play in paradoxical ways.

I’m neither a theologian nor a Gnostic scholar, of course, and I don’t have the space or expertise to dissect every bit of biblical and heretical content here. But this mishmash of the Bible, Gnostic texts and 21st-century revisionism makes this movie a problematic muddle, especially for viewers not all that familiar with what the Bible actually says.

And while we’re here, let’s talk about the Jesus the movie gives us.

This Christ feels both very otherworldly and oh-so-very human: He has visions of his own impending crucifixion and seems, frankly, terrified by what He sees. Jesus also seems to seek guidance from Mary at times—or, at the very least, follow her lead. When Mary tells Him that the woman of Cana can’t or won’t be baptized with the village’s menfolk, for instance, Jesus seems surprised—like it never occurred to Him before—and He decides to speak to a gathering of women first (instead of heading down to the synagogue). And when the time comes to baptize these ladies, Jesus entrusts Mary to do it.

He performs miracles, but the movie rarely has Him quote Scripture: Rather, he engages in loose paraphrases. And when it comes time to confront the money-changers in the temple, He seems less concerned with the businesses surrounding acts of sacrifice than the sacrifices themselves. “A flick of the knife at the altar, a Psalm of repentance on the way out,” He growls. “Have their hearts been altered when they leave this place?”

Jesus' disciples believe they’re following a militant Messiah—one who will overthrow Rome and all its injustices; usher in a new, temporal kingdom; and raise the dead. (This is a key component in Judas’ devotion to Jesus, given that the Romans killed his wife and daughter. When he realizes Jesus has different plans, that longing to see his family again triggers his betrayal in this depiction of him.)

And at times, the disciples related to Jesus almost the way you’d expect handlers of a particularly unpredictable celebrity diva to behave. In the wake of Jesus’ angry confrontation in the temple, in fact, they actively plot to press the reset button on their hoped-for insurgency. “We need to take Him away from here,” one says. “By force if need be.”

But Jesus won’t be manipulated and has His own plans. While I don’t think He ever explicitly calls Himself the Son of God here, Jesus knows what the Father has in mind for him, and He tells Mary to keep the disciples from interfering. Another Mary—the mother of Jesus—knows how special Jesus is as well, and she warns Mary Magdalene to prepare for his death.

We see and hear Jewish prayers and ceremonies.

Sexual Content

Jesus and Mary do not have a sexual or romantic relationship. The closest they come is when Jesus tenderly strokes Mary’s hair and face with his hand—an intimate gesture, and one that in context carries a whiff of ambiguity and even longing. But it goes no farther.

But the other Mary, Jesus’ mother, sees perhaps more than simple devotion in Mary Magdalene’s eyes. “You love my son, don’t you?” she says. “Then you must prepare yourself like me. … To lose him.”

A woman tells Jesus a horrific story of how a woman, when she was caught with a man not her husband, was raped and killed.

When Mary is baptized by Jesus, we see the outline of her breasts through her gauzy dress. In the movie’s postscript, we’re told that Pope Gregory declared that Mary was a prostitute—a misnomer that still lingers in popular imagination, even though the Vatican itself backed away from that declaration some decades ago.

Violent Content

The movie chronicles Jesus’ Passion in some detail: He staggers through the streets of Jerusalem, His shoulders bloodied and a crown of thorns on His head, as He tries to carry a wooden beam (tied to his arms) up the hill. We see the nails in His wrists and feet and watch as He suffers. He has visions of His impending death, too, and those visions show up onscreen.

Peter and Mary visit a nearly deserted village where only the sick and dying remain. We see plenty of seriously sick, almost skeletal, people there, and some of them die while Mary and, (eventually) Peter care for them. They discover some grotesque-looking corpses, too—including one still-smoking body whose arms have been tied to a wooden beam.

Judas hangs himself, and we see his lifeless body dangling in a doorway. Goats are handled by knife-toting priests covered in blood. Mary’s “exorcism” is pretty traumatic. When Mary runs off with Jesus and His disciples, brother Daniel pursues her. When Mary refuses to return, Daniel has to be pulled away from Jesus before he decks the Son of God.

We hear about a great many tragic losses. Jesus lies beside a dead body and brings it back to life: When he stares into the eyes of the slowly reviving man—apparently as he teeters on the edge of death and life—Jesus sees something in those eyes that sparks a great deal of anguish. He later confesses to Mary that He can feel His human life slipping away.

“The path goes to darkness,” Jesus says.

“And I will walk it with you,” Mary tells him.

Crude or Profane Language

None.

Drug and Alcohol Content

None.

Other Negative Elements

None.

Conclusion

Rooney Mara. Joaquin Phoenix. Chiwetel Ejiofor.

With a cast like that, you’d expect Mary Magdalene to have awards-season ambitions—not a tiny, 50-screen rollout in April and a 40% “freshness” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

But that’s what we have with this quasi-biblical story—one that, despite moments of insight and beauty and even grandeur, falls short of both its artistic and theological ambitions.

Why? There are lots of reasons, but the biggest is a simple stumbling block that more traditional Christian films sometimes trip over on occasion: Instead of showing us a story, it gives us a sermon.

The Mary Magdalene we first meet is an interesting, winsome and powerful character. Through her eyes we see not just Jesus, but the world in which they both lived—one of incredibly limited choices and woeful inequality. But if Mary was radical, how much more so was Jesus? Mary’s awestruck by the man she follows—so insightful and tender. For a nanosecond, it seems that she wants nothing more from life than to kneel at the Master’s feet and listen. And—all within the character we know—she makes the wildly radical decision to follow Jesus.

But with barely a breath and scarcely a pause, Mary seems to take charge of His ministry. The complex, conflicted woman we met earlier vanishes completely, replaced by a woman whose ethos seems to come from our time, not Jesus’. She seems to guide Christ in His ministry, pointing out the inequalities that the Son of God apparently couldn’t see without her help. She fights with the disciples, who in turn bristle over Mary’s oversized influence over him. Only Mary sees the risen Messiah. Only Mary, the movie says, understands His message. Easter becomes not an occasion for a celebration, but an excuse to split apart.

“Every man in this room is His rock,” Peter blusters. “His church. Upon which He will build his glorious new world with one purpose. And one message.”

Your message,” Mary says. “Not His.”

Man, too bad that Jesus couldn’t come back to all the disciples, isn’t it? Talk with them a bit? Oh, wait …

The inference, of course, is that the Church itself lost its way in its very first days, opening the door to millennia of patronizing, patriarchal sexism. And as this movie conveniently cherry-picks its sermon points from wherever is most convenient—the Bible, Gnosticism and our own 21st-century ethos—it’s told with all the grace of a ruler-rap to the knuckles.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Genre

Drama

Author

Cast

Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene; Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus; Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter; Tahar Rahim as Judas; Ariane Labed as Rachel; Denis Ménochet as Daniel

Director

Garth Davis ( )

Distributor

Universal Pictures

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

April 12, 2019

On Video

September 3, 2019

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Paul Asay

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults
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