Whether one believes through religious faith or reads it as fiction, the story of Jesus Christ and the crucifixion is one of the best in all of history. It’s unsurprising that filmmakers from Martin Scorsese to Mel Gibson have made their own attempts to depict the last days of a figure as open to interpretation as the supposed Son of God. Garth Davis, fresh off the Oscar-nominated Lion, reunites with Rooney Mara to provide his own reimagining by focusing on the perspective of Mary Magdalene and her own relationship with Christ.
Joaquín Phoenix approaches the role of Jesus with an appropriate level of gravitas and commitment, with a presence that is both powerful and comforting without ever resorting to overacting. Mara does fine work exploring Magdalene’s sense of isolation and yearning for truth, justifying why she gravitates to Jesus as she does, but the script by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett felt quite flat in justifying this new perspective on a familiar story. Rather than providing a fresh feminist view on the birth of Christianity, the narrative follows the same predictable moments that feature in nearly every story of the crucifixion. It wasn’t until the final scenes that I began to get a sense of why Edmundson and Goslett wanted to explore Magdalene’s understanding of Christ and his teachings, and the most interesting details about her had to be literally spelt out in title cards before the end credits. I did appreciate Tahar Rahim’s take of Judas, a fascinating and complex character in any interpretation, as a man whose adoration of a man turns to resentment due to a profound misunderstanding of his message, and Chiwetel Ejiofor offers a more morally ambiguous take on Peter than usually presented. There’s a diverse mix of races and nationalities playing the apostles, suggesting Davis had opted for colour-blind casting for these religious figures, but having both Mary and Jesus played by traditionally white Mara and Phoenix lets down what could have been an interesting opportunity.
Greig Fraser’s cinematography is easily the strongest part of Mary Magdalene, almost covering up the flatness of the script through exceptionally emotive landscape photography. Filmed in Rome and Southern Italy, Davis and Fraser combine wide-open shots of the Italian countryside and ancient structures to present environments that are both desolate in their emptiness and beautiful in their scope. Davis’ direction and creative editing further gets into the very human psychology of Jesus as he becomes increasingly unstable due to the pressure, fears, and frustrations of his influence and inevitable execution. Yet as strong as the quality of filmmaking is, I can’t really think of any reason to recommend seeing Mary Magdalene. The performances are strong, the cinematography is powerfully expressive, and Davis’s direction is capable, but it doesn’t change the fact that the story offers little surprises. The Easter release was certainly a deliberate move to make the tale feel relevant, but only serves to bury it within the countless other Passion plays. The story moves too slowly when we all know where it’s going, and it never justifies its alternative take on the material. There is definitely more that could be said about the life of Mary Magdalene, but Davis and his team keep things too focused on Jesus’s influence to enable her to speak with her own voice.