When you hear the name Jesus, many non-Christians – and heck, many Christians – conjure up an image a bit like this:
We know from scripture that Jesus was kind and compassionate, and didn’t shoo noisy children away. But the historical Jesus was also a troublesome rebel who went around saying seditious and (for the time) totally outrageous things, and was ultimately killed for it.
This Jesus, not twee Jesus, is the Jesus we encounter in Mary Magdalene. Told entirely from Mary’s perspective, we learn what Mary gave up to be a follower of Jesus, and the story shows some of Jesus’ ministry, his death, and resurrection. Taking liberties with her background (we know nothing of Mary’s antecedents), Mary (played by Rooney Mara) lives in the small fishing settlement of Magdala, where she lives a simple life with her family. As an unmarried woman, she is an object of curiosity and embarrassment for her family who are doing their best to marry her off. Mary yearns for something more than the traditional role her culture demands, and becomes very distressed when told she must marry. Her distress convinces the men in her village that she must be possessed by a demon, and they attempt to cast it out of her.
Into this situation comes Jesus, and he SEES Mary, really sees her. He speaks to her and his words bring her great comfort. This in itself is extraordinary, if you know that in this culture and time, men were not permitted to even greet women in public. Jesus has an extraordinary attitude to women – he never treats women as inferior, unclean or unworthy, unlike the patriarchal society in which he lives. Not only did historical Jesus teach women, he had female disciples who travelled and served with him, and who were highly regarded by early Christians.
Jesus (played by Joaquin Phoenix) describes a kingdom where peace and justice reign, a topsy-turvey world where the lowly are lifted up and an end to oppression. Mary is so captivated by Jesus’ message that she gives up everything to follow him. In becoming a disciple, Mary not only gives up her home, but she gives up her reputation and chance of marriage – for no man would ever be permitted to marry an unmarried woman who associates with men outside her family. The Mary Magdalene of scripture is Jesus’ most prominent female disciple; she is always listed first in named groups of female disciples, and with ‘movie Mary’ they explore just how important she must have been to Jesus’ ministry in such a patriarchal society.
I was very moved by this film. Firstly, I’m stoked that Mary Magdalene has been so accurately portrayed. She’s long been a subject of fascination and respect for me. Thanks to Pope Gregory who wrongly identified Mary as the prostitute who washes Jesus feet with expensive perfume (and merges her further with yet another Mary) Mary has been wrongly associated with prostitution, seduction and sinfulness. The dichotomy of the Virgin Mary vs the Penitent Whore served to oppress women for centuries – women were either expected to be good, dutiful wives and mothers, and those that weren’t were often considered mad or bad and in need of repenting. Don’t get me started. Scholars surmise Pope Gregory wanted to downplay the importance of women in the early church, because, you know, patriarchy. There is absolutely no evidence that Mary was anything but a devoted disciple, who was so important, that she was the first person to see the resurrected Jesus. To see the society in which Mary lived, and to understand the courage it must have taken for her to follow Jesus makes this film inspiring viewing.
Secondly, it was great to see historical, rebel Jesus doing his stuff. Giving poor and oppressed people hope, smashing the patriarchy, performing miracles, and to get a sense of how much the disciples were waiting for Jesus to smite the Romans, and usher in his new kingdom. Thirdly, I thought their treatment of Judas was sensitive and thought-provoking, and it made me understand what may have motivated him to betray Jesus in a whole new light.
I do have my criticisms of the movie, however. The actors playing Mary, Jesus, and Jesus’ mother are way too old, and white. They play their parts well, but it still bugs me. Joaquin Phoenix is 43, and looks every bit of it. The actress playing his mother is positively geriatric for someone who should be in her 40s, given that many women were married by 14. Blue eyes are everywhere. There’s also lots of inexplicable lying down, and Jesus swoons rather a lot. While I think Joaquin Phoenix does a good job as Jesus, he is let down by a script that offers a Jesus who smiles and gives compassionate looks, rather than life-changing teaching. I found the depiction of the Last Supper and Jesus’ resurrection rather flat and disappointing.
Despite its shortcomings, I recommend seeing Mary Magdalene to learn more about this remarkable woman. It is beautifully shot, with great attention to detail, and is reasonably faithful to scripture, although some liberties are taken.
Lastly, I would like to say I’ve seen some Christians raging online, and telling people not see the movie because the movie-writers also used the Gnostic gospel of Mary to inform the movie. Yes, there is something from the Gospel of Mary included in the movie, but hey, let’s think for ourselves, okay?