The Mary Magdalene depicted in Lion director Garth Davis’ second feature film is a far cry from the desperate damaged goods portrayed by Barbara Hershey in The Last Temptation of Christ, and the swooning, motherly servant who famously sang about not knowing “how to love him” in Jesus Christ Superstar. Both these depictions continued the tradition of presenting Magdalene as a sex worker, despite no biblical foundation for this – some academics believing her centuries of bad press endured due to an attempt by the church to restrict the influence of women.
Davis’ plodding, pensive, pious drama intends to correct the record, purifying the protagonist and presenting her as an early case study in female empowerment. The film begins with the visual cliché of a body submerged in water (matched with dreamy, cryptic voice over) imparting a poeticism quickly abandoned for a more sober and realistic mood.
A feminist theme emerges, as a counter to the implicit manliness of the bedrock narrative: about a god characterised as male.
When Mary (played by Rooney Mara) hears of a man who has been speaking publicly, she comments that it must be nice to have so much free time: an introduction to Jesus, by way of some work/life balance envy. When the protagonist breaks the news to her father – who is played by one of many beards in the film with a human being attached to it – that she is not made for the life he intended, he responds with one of those lines presented in highlighter pen. He asks: “What on earth are you made for?”
Soon she meets Jesus. He is played by Joaquin Phoenix; outstanding as always, as a gentle and misty-eyed leader with a daydreaming demeanour. He is distanced and forlorn, and speaks in careful measured cadence, reflecting a deeply introspective and patient demeanour. This man even smiles slowly. Eventually Jesus’ calmness cracks, Phoenix’s face wobbling with emotion during the classic ‘cleansing of the temple’ moment.
It is an engaging scene, trembling with psychological energy, and nervous making for the viewer – partly because we know what’s coming up, and partly because we know the director will shift the focus. It is also one of several reminders that the most interesting character in this story is certainly not Mary, nor any of the twelve disciples. The group behave like the girls in Picnic at Hanging Rock: walking in an almost robotic manner, as if in a trance, and speaking in vague ways, with little to distinguish themselves from each other in personality, motivation or backstory.
Some of the commentary around the film has suggested Mary Magdalene is a bold second feature from Davis. That’s an usual compliment, given how many biblical adaptations have already been made, and how risk-averse this one is in the scheme of the things. Events depicted in the bible are treated mostly matter-of-factly, with inevitable loosening of the dialogue (ancient religious texts are not exactly a natural fit for realistic recreation).
The director and his screenwriters (Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett) are acutely aware that they are treading on eggshells. They obviously did not want to offend believers, who comprise the film’s core target market – and who, it has been well established, will flock to the cinema in droves. Some key events are omitted, on the grounds that this is Magdalene’s story and it is told from her perspective.
At one point a woman tells Jesus “we’re women, our lives are not our own.” Christ listens sympathetically, spinning this into a lesson about letting go of hatred.
A feminist theme emerges, as a counter to the implicit manliness of the bedrock narrative: about a god characterised as male (‘The Father’), creating a male saviour (‘The Son’), followed by a dozen men (the 12 disciplines), with assistance from a gender neutral source of divinity (‘The Holy Spirit’).
At one point a woman tells Jesus “we’re women, our lives are not our own.” Christ listens sympathetically, spinning this into a lesson about letting go of hatred. Eventually Mara – whose performance is affecting, but clipped – is given a meaty speech. She declares that she “will not stay and be silent. I will be heard.”
There is an implication, given the current point in history, that the bible has been co-opted – or at least influenced – by contemporary sensibility, vis-à-vis a strong desire for female-focused narratives. But this line of thinking in Mary Magdalene only extends so far. The filmmakers do virtually nothing to explore the nature, extent or power of misogyny, despite this being central to their perspective. There is even a text insert, just before the closing credits roll, stating how Magdalene’s reputation as a wanton woman was invented by Pope Gregory in a sixth century sermon.
Doing something interesting, when it comes to religious texts, often means doing something dangerous. Scholars and/or believers and/or commentators might criticise, or intellectualise, songs like the torch ballad mentioned at the beginning of this review: I Don’t Know How to Love Him, from Jesus Christ Superstar. Fair enough, but that song, for all the flakiness of the musical it belongs to, contains short, simple moments of naked emotion and profundity that cut through more than anything in Davis’ film. Do we not ask, about people closest to us, how best to love them?
Low-lit cinematography from Melbourne-born Greig Fraser is part of Mary Magdalene’s strengths, and part of its problem. The director allows the film to look handsome, but – with the exception of a couple of moments, including the aforementioned visual cliché – not overtly beautiful. Beauty would give it atmospheric bravura, which could lead to other things: interesting visual symbolism, for example, and all the daringness and baggage that comes with that. We have enough baggage already, Davis seems to be saying. His second feature is nothing if not controlled.
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Mary Magdalene opens in Australian cinemas March 22