When a film comes out related to Biblical truths, everyone’s response will be deeply personal. Like any book-turned-movie, we’ve all got our own imagined ideas about what each character looks like, how they speak, and what their role is in the story.
Add to that the spiritual significance of God’s Word, and the eternal realities it’s intended to convey, and the makers of Mary Magdalene (helmed by Lion Director Garth Davis) have a tough job ahead of them.
Set in the Holy Land in the first century C.E., Mary Magdalene lives in a small fishing village caring for her family, and feeling the pressure of her brother to marry and settle in to the traditions of her people. Resisting their expectations, Mary endures an exorcism of sorts (deemed necessary because of her counter-cultural behaviour), before leaving her family to join a radical new social movement.
Led by Jesus of Nazareth, Mary is captivated by Jesus’ charisma and His promise that the world is changing. In a day where the rigid hierarchies of society deny Mary the authenticity she seeks, Jesus and His disciples provide her with a message to get behind, which shapes her own spiritual journey and understanding of the Kingdom of God.
Who Was Mary Magdalene?
The person of Mary Magdalene, and who the woman was who first saw the resurrected Jesus, has been debated for years. Given the handful of scriptures that mention her, and limited historical documentation, there’s an entire backstory and character to be imagined. Was she a prostitute who fell in with Jesus’ crew? A demon possessed harlot? Or, as Pope-Francis recently decreed, “An apostle of hope”?
In Mary Magdalene the film, the Mary we meet is a curious young woman compelled to go deeper with her faith in God, longing to find a movement she can belong to led by someone who ‘gets her’ and values her voice. Instead of pleasing the Jewish men around her, she wants only to have relationship with God, and better understand His kingdom. Mary is a midwife, a friend, and a witness to Jesus miracles. Rather than focusing on Jesus and the Gospel message, Mary Magdalene is looking at how women fit into spiritual discussions, and how Jesus welcomed women in.
Does This Film Sideline The Gospel?
It’s a timely discussion, as women’s role in the world and their treatment takes centre stage with the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns, but whether the core intention of the Bible should be sidelined in favour of a topical conversation is contentious. Should the stories we want to tell take priority over the story Jesus was telling?
The objective of the gospels is clear: reveal Jesus’ deity, demonstrate the power of God and His Kingdom, and execute God’s plan for the salvation of humanity. In Mary Magdalene though, that’s all quite vague. After the opening sequence which questions what the kingdom of God is truly like, and in Mary’s words whether “we have misunderstood” the message of Jesus, we’re left with no real explanation of who He is and why He’s in Jerusalem.
Portraying the Much-Debated Jesus-Mary Relationship
When production of this film began, the representation of Mary, and particularly how she would relate to Jesus was a cause for concern: would Mary Magdalene follow in Dan Brown’s footsteps (al la The Da Vinci Code), and popularise the idea that Mary and Jesus’ relationship was romantic?
In Mary’s exchanges with Jesus she has clear admiration for the man, and the leader. He shows her great kindness, baptising her in the same water where she was exorcized by her father, and inviting her speak up in the public square. Mary looks with consideration at the way Jesus interacts with the sick, finding opportunity to ask questions of Him when the crowds are dispersed and the other disciples have had enough of her company.
“Mary approaches Jesus with a gentle affection, but no more than if anyone was face to face with the saviour they profess to love and follow.”
Mary approaches Jesus with a gentle affection, but no more than if anyone was face to face with the saviour they profess to love and follow. In our sexualised culture it’s easy to think there’s ‘something fishy’ about the way they look at each other, but I know if Jesus were near me, all I’d want is to latch onto his hands, sit at His table, and find times where we could chat.
Mary materialises the exchange with Jesus that we only experience by faith.
An Aloof and Confusing Version of Jesus
More problematic than Mary’s relationship to Jesus though, was Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Jesus. His demeanour is confusing.
When you first see Jesus, He’s aloof, tired, and in need of a good shower. He sees Mary coming from afar, and almost like that guy you don’t want your teenage girl hanging around, compels her with His softly spoken ‘spiritual guru charm’, instead of commanding attention as the all-powerful incarnate word of God. There’s an indulgent weakness in Him as he struggles to manage crowds and offer healing; this contradicts the selfless Christ of the Bible. It’s hard to believe Mary Magdalene’s Jesus was interested in anything other than finding His own ‘spiritual high’. Witnessing Him wrestle with the “spiralling darkness” He felt in the lead up to His crucifixion, His love for God the Father and His bold obedience aren’t given any credit at all. Joaquin’s Jesus may feel more approachable to an audience familiar with Kabbalah or Hinduism, but whether this is the Jesus of the Bible being portrayed is debateable.
Mary Magdalene will promote an array of valuable discussions and stands out from other Bible epics in its acting quality and visualisation of the Holy Land, but whether it tells the true story that lies between the Bibles pages we’ll never know.
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