Mary Magdalene **

The performances are fine, but it’s more about Jesus than Mary, and feels disappointing as a result. 

Is it worth $10? No 

“Mary Magdalene” might have been a good movie – if it was about Mary Magdalene. Alas, a guy named Jesus enters the story about a third of the way through, and quickly becomes the center of attention. (How could we not want to know more about a guy who uncrosses the eyes of a cross-eyed woman, and brings a man back from the dead?) This should’ve been called “Jesus & Mary,” with “Jesus” emphatically coming first.

We start with Mary (Rooney Mara) in Judea, 33 A.D.  She’s liked and respected in her village, but seeks independence and control of her life, so she rejects the marriage proposal of a local businessman named Ephraim (Tsahi Halevi). Shocked at the gall she has to desire her own happiness, her father (Tcheky Karyo) and brother (Denis Menochet) think she’s possessed by demons, and conduct an exorcism by trying to drown her. In need of help, her father brings in a charismatic healer named Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix), but this backfires when Mary chooses to leave her family behind and follow Jesus to Jerusalem.  

Along the way it’s implied that Jesus and Mary develop feelings for one another – certainly enough to upset Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and possibly also Judas (Tahar Rahim) – but Jesus and Mary never so much as kiss. We can understand why she’s drawn to him: He’s young, passionate, a miracle worker, and believes that faith in God will free his followers from Roman (or any) oppression. Go “into the light of God,” Peter says as he baptizes people, and they believed it so much that they spread the word of Jesus’ teachings throughout the land.

It’s 2019, and remember that movies are always a reflection of the society in which they’re made. This was an opportunity to take a well-known historical female and show how she made a difference in a man’s world. To tell a tale of a bold woman that could translate to empowering women today. Yet director Garth Davis (“Lion”) struggles to stick with Mary as his focal point, instead allowing Jesus to dominate much of the story, which relegates Mary to a supporting character.

This renders Mary as a reactionary rather than a protagonist, and reactionaries are never ideal to base a movie upon. It’s natural that Jesus is impactful because we need to believe she would follow him, but in doing so, and becoming so devoted to his teachings, she also sacrifices her individuality. It’s her choice, yes, but it still feels male-driven. Clearly, a little artistic license to make Mary even more independent and rebellious would’ve served the narrative well.

The performances from Mara, Phoenix, and the rest of the cast are fine, and the production and costume designs feel authentic. Perhaps the story of “Mary Magdalene” is authentic as well in that Mary wasn’t particularly interesting, and her life in itself doesn’t lend well to a 120-minute movie. If that’s the case, make a different movie.

Did you know?
Phoenix is an atheist in real life; he and Mara started dating during the production.

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