After being released overseas last year, Mary Magdalene made it to U.S. theaters in early April and began streaming this month on Amazon.
Directed by Garth Davis (who also directed Lion, one of my favorite films), the biblical drama follows Mary (Rooney Mara) as she leaves her life in a fishing village to become a disciple of Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix).
From the opening scene, this film feels different from most biblical movies. Gorgeously shot in muted hues, Mary Magdalene has a contemplative tenor and lingering pace, taking its time exploring her life-changing encounter with Jesus.
Seeing Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection through Mary’s eyes is compelling and provides fresh perspectives on women in the first century, the historical Gospels and the power of love and forgiveness.
One of the film’s strengths is the way it personalizes aspects of the Gospels that tend to get overlooked or lost in their familiarity. We see how the fragile political situation and the brutality of Roman rule affect Judas, which not only illustrates the personal toll of living under such a system but also humanizes him.
The film explores struggles associated with the status of women in the first century and how Jesus confronts this. Mary faces difficult and sometimes disturbing actions from others stemming from societal and religious cultures that view women as inferior — even from some of the disciples, including Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
But Jesus both sees and treats her as a disciple. I found this aspect of the film empowering, reminding me how Jesus lays the foundation for the church and the coming of the Spirit.
The film explores the disciples’ political expectations of Jesus. Their mistaken beliefs distract them from the true nature and power of the kingdom and its tactics, particularly love and forgiveness.
The most moving scenes reveal the power of that love and forgiveness, which Mary embodies. Her unrelenting choices to enter into the suffering of others with compassion and strength — even those who have hurt her — are the heart of this film. They confront us with the call of Jesus and the power of acts of love and forgiveness to heal, transform hearts and change the world.
The film isn’t without its weaknesses. Phoenix’s portrayal of Jesus feels detached and aloof. I was moved by Mary’s acts of love, but I didn’t feel the same kind of love emanating from Phoenix’s Jesus. The film takes liberties with the biblical text that will bother some viewers. And, like the disciples, the filmmakers ultimately end up missing the true essence of the kingdom, concluding with a general message that the power to change the world comes from within us.
In spite of its faults, Mary Magdalene is worth seeing, not only for its fresh perspectives and compelling moments but also for the themes it raises that are relevant to us today — particularly regarding the role and treatment of women, the tendency to politicize the gospel for our own ends and the lack of understanding of the relevance and nature of God’s kingdom here and now.
This film is rated R, particularly for its depictions of violence and the effects of violence. In my opinion, it is not gratuitous.
Carmen Andres, a former editor of the Mennonite Brethren magazine Christian Leader, lives in Alexandria, Va.