29 July 2019 | JamesHitchcock
Rugged Simplicity and Sincerity
Mary Magdalene, according to the Gospels, was a follower of Jesus as one of his followers and was a witness to His crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. In Christian tradition she has frequently been described as a repentant prostitute, although there is no Biblical authority to support this theory or her identification with either the anonymous "sinful woman" who anoints Jesus's feet or with the equally anonymous "woman taken in adultery". There is also no evidence to support the theory occasionally put forward (e.g. in "The Da Vinci Code") that she and Jesus were married. Another assumption which has been made is that she was wealthy, and there is some Biblical support for this in that Luke refers to her supporting Jesus's ministry "out of her resources".
In this film, however, Mary Magdalene is a poor girl from Magdala on the Sea of Galilee. The real Magdala appears to have been a sizeable and prosperous town, but here it is depicted as a small and impoverished fishing village. She becomes a follower of Jesus, but her presence in His circle is not always welcomed by His male disciples. This is not simply a question of male chauvinism; there are also theological and ideological differences between Mary and the other disciples.
In the Gospels Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus for money, but it has become almost a cliché in New Testament biblical dramas to depict Judas as a Zealot, a freedom fighter hoping to liberate Judea from the control of the Roman Empire, an interpretation adopted in both "King of Kings" and "The Greatest Story Ever Told", even though there is no Biblical support for it. According to this interpretation Judas betrayed Jesus either in a bid to force Him to launch a Holy War against the Romans or out of disappointment that Jesus would not do so. This interpretation is followed in this film, except that here it is not just Judas who is a Zealot. All the other male disciples, especially Peter, hold similar views.
Mary Magdalene, however, is different. In a development again not found in the canonical Gospels (although it may derive some support from the non-canonical Gnostic Gospels) she is the only one who fully understands Jesus, that his is a message of peace and forgiveness, not of Holy War against the godless, and who helps to bring the male disciples (except Judas) round to this way of thinking.
There is nothing really wrong with Rooney Mara's performance in the main role, but she does not really stand out. The one outstanding performance comes from Joaquin Phoenix. Some might argue that Phoenix, aged 44 but looking considerably older behind that heavy beard, was too old to play Jesus, who died when He was only 33. Yet I think that there was probably a conscious decision on the part of the film-makers to get away from a young, handsome Jesus as portrayed by Robert Powell in "Jesus of Nazareth" or Jeffrey Hunter in "King of Kings" (aka "I Was a Teenage Jesus") and that the reasoning behind this decision was to downplay the idea that Mary's attraction to Jesus was sexual or romantic rather than spiritual. Phoenix gives us a deeply human Jesus, very different from traditional Christian ideas about the Second Person of the Trinity, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father. This is no charismatic orator or commanding religious leader but a humble carpenter's son turned itinerant preacher, a man whose appeal is grounded not in blazing rhetoric or miraculous powers but in his humility and his faith in God, a faith which remains unshaken despite moments of doubt.
The film is very different to the traditional large-scale Biblical epic. It appears to have been made on a relatively small budget, lacking the elaborate sets and costumes and the large-scale set-piece scenes of something like "The Greatest Story...". It is austere in its visual style and the characters mostly wear plain homespun garments appropriate to their humble origins. It can at times be ponderous and slow-moving, yet there is a rugged simplicity and sincerity about it which means that it is able to bring Christianity to life in a way which more grandiose productions (and here I am thinking particularly of "The Greatest Story...") are not. 7/10