Biblical stories are a tricky challenge for filmmakers. The epic approach taken by The Greatest Story Ever Told would be a difficult sell for modern-day audiences, while the shadow cast by Monty Python’s Life of Brian means there’s always a risk of self-parody. Serious and devotional works such as The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ, on the other hand, were also hugely controversial on first release.
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Mary Magdalene is a more modest undertaking than any of the above, being largely a straight retelling of the Gospels with plenty of familiar landmarks: the curing of the blind, the Last Supper and the Crucifixion are all present and correct. The twist this time is to put the titular character centre stage, reclaiming her as a proactive figure in the story of Jesus, rather than merely – as conventional wisdom would have it – a repentant sinner.
We meet Mary (Rooney Mara) in Judea, a pious woman first seen assisting with the birth of a child. (‘The midwife says she’s a natural,’ remarks one onlooker, not the only example of clunky dialogue.) She learns of Jesus during a family discussion, and later hears his voice speaking directly to her – an episode dismissed as demonic possession by her controlling siblings. However, a face-to-face encounter with Jesus, who encourages her desire to ‘know God’, leads her to abandon her family and join his small band of disciples, led by Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
Unfortunately, the arrival of the Messiah – played by Joaquin Phonenix with the mumbling and hungover air of a modern-day street performer – is the film’s first jarring note. Watching him preach, one wonders how he could possibly inspire such intense devotion, particularly as he more closely resembles Rasputin than the Son of God. He simply doesn’t move the heavens, which inevitably dilutes the effectiveness of many scenes, including the resurrection of Lazarus and the casting of the moneylenders from the temple.
Nor is the movie entirely successful in presenting Mary as a feminist icon.
Nor is the movie entirely successful in presenting Mary as a feminist icon. For much of the running time she’s left to stare into the middle distance while Jesus performs his miracles. Only in the final scenes does she get to flex her muscles (‘I will not stay and be silent; I will be heard,’ she says defiantly to her fellow disciples). A final title card states that Mary’s salacious reputation is largely an invention of the Church. But by stripping away all the ambiguity, director Garth Davis has paradoxically made her a far less interesting character.
Mary Magdalene is by no means a bad film. The eerie score – a swansong effort by the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson – is particularly effective, and marries beautifully with the well-chosen Italian locations (cinematographer Greig Fraser certainly knows how to frame a scene). There are also good performances, not least Tahar Rahim as a surprisingly low-key and sympathetic Judas. But in trying to avoid all the clichés of Biblical filmmaking, Mary Magdalene commits an even more cardinal sin: it’s boring.
Mary Magdalene is released in cinemas on 16 March
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