Faith lights up the whole world is the message of Mary of Magdela, with a new movie about this ‘sainted’ lady in history directed caringly by Garth Davis (Lion). Distributed by Transmission films, it will be on view at select cinemas around Australia from the Easter weekend onward.
It features Rooney Mara as Mary, Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus of Nazareth, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter, the apostle on whose shrine was built St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and with Tahar Rahim as Judas Iscariot, who with a kiss on the cheek for 30 pieces of silver, identified Jesus as ‘Master” (Mat 26.14-16 and John 12.6), betraying him to the Roman guards in the Garden of Gethsemene.
Mary Magdalene is a woman much maligned in the history of women in the world as over the centuries they struggled to be considered whole and equal in a dominating patriarchal society, with men who placed them basically in a place of servitude.
One of the things I discovered, which I hadn’t realised happened in recent times, is her elevation to be equal to the apostles of Jesus of Nazareth had been proclaimed in Pope Francis’ name for all to hear from Vatican City in June 2016.
Mary was the only woman who travelled with the healer, the man she called Rabbi, on the road to Jerusalem with he and his male disciples. This is where he was to die in agony, crucified on a cross.
After he was gone, Mary proclaimed life from his place of death.
She declared to the disciples she had fulfilled the mandate the Risen Christ had given her: ‘go to my brothers and say to them … “I have seen the Lord”.
She was Jesus’ witness to the events surrounding his death and resurrection.
Theologically sound and following a path of respecting tradition while quietly telling the story of the woman born to evangelize the message of Jesus, later called The Christ (anointed one) about the enduring qualities of true love and forgiveness to the world, I found this movie tastefully restrained and in many ways, full of quiet hope.
It’s not meant to galvanize us by the ‘chemistry’ between her and Jesus, something so looked for in movies today, where everyone in ‘love’ ends up in bed together; but to gently woo us into expanding our own view and understanding of the importance of the inner life.
It is also about the experiences we share with someone we love, perhaps the most important aspect of any relationship; the pain of parting. Letting those we love go is the hardest lesson of life.
Right from the start Mary crosses and exceeds boundaries, not doing what her controlling older brothers or her father constantly all tell her to do, finding herself nearly drowned by them all as they attempt to exorcise her ‘demons’ – her right to assert herself among men, by dunking her in the sea.
When later on she is baptised in the sea by Jesus himself, Mary shows no fear at all, despite her previous ordeal. It has to do with matters of trust.
After hearing and meeting Jesus and his disciples beside the sea of Gallilee, Mary is not intimidated by his presence, but instead meditates on what she is to do.
In conversation he has asked her “In the silence, is there something calling? Mary – Do you have the courage to follow what you hear?”
Her choices are to settle back down to a stifling life with her brothers and father who analyze her every move, while tending the family flocks and fields.
Otherwise, she can take to the road following Jesus. If she does she realises she will not have anything to rely on except her own strength of purpose and her own commitment to becoming a ‘follower of the way’ to keep her going.
Her admiration for the healer whose miracles she has observed and her faith in the ideas he espouses, gives her what she needs most; faith.
The audience for this movie will probably in the main people of the Christian faith.
It is a shame.
Historically the reasons religious institutions were established should not be treated with contempt. They have many thought provoking stories about the evolution of humankind to share, which are useful to our understanding of the world around us past to present.
Gaining an understanding of our heritage and the role religion has had to play, is vital to our knowledge of our cultural evolution.
This movie is about how and why we rose up to leave superstition behind. When we finally became literate, with the ability to read about issues facing mankind for ourselves, we began reinventing the world we live in until today.
Australian genius of social commentary Michael Leunig once explained why he talks about God. “Maybe it represents something profound I don’t understand – but at least I can talk to. Maybe it means many things: maybe when you say it, the heart hears it, the same as the word ’love’. I want to bring these words back into my language and use them comfortably.’’
Mary Magdalene was a witness who believed in absolute truth; by all accounts a practical woman, often misrepresented by ancient writers and notably by the male members of the Roman Catholic church for centuries.
They exaggerated her faults and made up stories about her to give her an unsavoury reputation, to achieve their own ends.
Rooney Mara gives an intense, sensitive portrayal of Mary, who struggles with herself while learning to walk side by side with her companions on the road with Jesus to reach the hill at Calvary.
Unlike the men in his life, Mary and his mother once they had joined him, never left Jesus until they laid his body in a tomb to rest.
Joaquin Phoenix is perhaps an unusual choice as Jesus and some may find his performance lack-lustre, because today they are so used to Jesus being ‘hypnotic’ by reputation, more than any other man.
However, this man so many believed was the ‘son of God’ is very much earth bound, his feet firmly planted on the ground even while about his ‘father’s heavenly business’, coping with the fore knowledge of his very tragic end.
He’s not only laid back in his attitude, but also forthright with what he has to say when saying it. This made his character for me more accessible because he seems far more real, except perhaps when laying on hands to help those in trouble or earthly need.
During these encounters his whole being and countenance comes to life with the joys of the act of giving.
The supporting cast are good in their roles, although they don’t have a great deal of dialogue to share with the centrality of the story focused firmly on Mary and her relationship with Jesus.
She wins the disciples respect within a very short time, not by being strong but by being steady and true, otherwise they would not have believed she had seen the risen Christ.
Mary’s gentle forgiveness of Judas after the betrayal is poignant.
She takes his hands into her own and asks him how he feels to carry around so much hate in his heart, as indeed so many people do today. It must be a burden hard to bear.
Mary of Magdala evangalised the message of Jesus of Nazareth, so much so that it rang true down the centuries and ages of time that faith, belief, steadfast love and forgiveness is eternal.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2018