Freedom and Order: History, Politics and the English Bible
Nick Spencer traces the influence of the Bible on British political life and thought.
Amy Plender reviews Garth Davis’ new film Mary Magdalene.
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What would it feel like to join the scrappy band of tradesmen and outcasts who formed the fledgling Jesus movement? In particular, what would it feel like for a woman to join an all–male travelling group, as they trailed their way behind an enigmatic and controversial preacher in first century Palestine? This is the driving question behind Garth Davis’ new film Mary Magdalene.
The memory of Mary of Magdala has been bastardised for almost two thousand years. In his Easter sermon of 591 CE, Pope Gregory incorrectly conflated her with the ‘sinful’ woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume (Luke 7), sparking a legacy of artistic representation from the likes of Tintoretto and Titian. Despite the Vatican’s official retraction of this in 1969, this perception has persisted to the present day, not helped by the attachment of Mary’s name to the horrific Magdalene laundries of 18th–20th century Ireland at one extreme, and the ridiculous Dan Brown school of conspiracy theories at the other. I confess that when I first saw this film’s poster my heart sank – two people, of similar ages, standing close to each other and looking pensive? It can only mean one thing. Throw in religion and two thousand years of speculation and you’ve got yourself a gold mine of controversy and headaches.
To my utter relief, Davis’ film sidesteps both conspiracy theories and conventional retelling. It focusses instead on Mary’s experience of meeting and following Jesus, based on gleanings from the Gospels. Starring Rooney Mara and Joaquim Phoenix, the film’s feminist themes are compounded by the fact it was due to be distributed in America through The Weinstein Company; the collapse of which in the wake of sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein add an extra poignancy to its depiction of a potentially vulnerable woman encountering a powerful leader, and their responses to each other.
From the film’s opening, to the sound of a woman’s breath and visuals of a figure floating through deep blue water, the characters are viscerally human. Our first proper look at Mary is as she’s fishing with her family, lugging heavy nets into the sea, the edge of her headscarf in her teeth. Our first proper look at Jesus is from Mary’s eye level as she lies on her bed mat, of his grubby sandaled feet.
Fittingly, for a film telling its story from Mary’s view point, for much of the time the frame centres on her face and gaze. Mara’s acting is mesmeric, the light glancing off the planes of her face, simultaneously sharp and smooth, like the undulating landscape they journey through. Sleeping under the stars and dressed in clothes which practically camouflage them into nature, the disciples are as much of their landscape as we viewers are of ours. They inhabit a world simultaneously familiar to yet so different from a modern Western context, lulling us into security before challenging our assumptions about the narrative and its characters.
The contrast between what we expect and what we see is a theme throughout the film. The depiction of Judas Iscariot as endearingly sensitive, if slightly foolish, is the first treatment I’ve seen of him that does not rely on the assumption that “the son of perdition” (John 17.12) was purely mercenary and wicked. The emphasis on Jesus’ humanity rather than his divinity is perhaps less surprising, given modern tastes for more approachable heroes over the transcendent, but no less welcome for it.
This humanity forms the basis of Jesus’ relationship with Mary. She forms a foil to the bumbling, passionate male disciples, one of the most profound ways being her recognition of the extraordinarily high cost of his ministry, to Jesus himself as well as his followers. When he withdraws in exhaustion from healing and speaking to the crowds, she sits beside him and asks gentle, quiet questions. The tenderness of their relationship at times edges into the sensual, but more in emotional rapport than sexual attraction. Unusually, their relationship is as equals, neither romantic nor didactic, but gentle, marked by a particular appreciation of the others’ sacrifice, gifts, and potential. Jesus is as encouraged by and leans on Mary (sometimes literally) as much as she him. Insightful as this is, I did at times find it a bit much, and it certainly challenges conventional depictions of Jesus’ ministry and self–understanding, not altogether helpfully. Mary emerges as the saviour of the film, as well as its protagonist, in that she is its moral compass, the driving force in every interaction, the supporter in every difficulty. This is refreshing and suitable to the tone of the film, if a little theologically awkward at times.
Throughout the film we see the upwards trajectory of Mary’s key characteristics of strength and love. Unlike the lovable, bullish disciples, she grasps the significance of caring for people over recruiting new followers. In a harrowing sequence, Mary and Peter encounter a group of starving people whose village has been razed by the Romans. Peter sees no purpose in remaining – what use can the dying serve the battle for the Kingdom of God? – but Mary gets to work with characteristic strength and love, soothing the villagers’ final moments with water and her presence, and staring down a Roman soldier who comes to check the ruined village.
The energy of the acting and chemistry of the actors often renders speech superfluous – most is communicated through a look, a touch of the hand, or a turned back. It reminded me of Dreyer’s 1928 classic The Passion of Joan of Arc, as another riveting silent portrayal of a strong woman in a male–dominated environment. This is just as well, as I wasn’t always gripped by the dialogue, which is less the fault of the script itself than the familiarity and sublimity of the original Biblical text. A moment when Jesus winsomely asks Mary “what should I preach?” to some women falls flat with her acerbic reply, “are we [women] so different you don’t know what to say to us?”, and came across as needlessly chippy given Jesus’ clearly egalitarian approach throughout the film.
Similarly, the focus on Mary’s perspective means that some key moments are missed out, which I found frustrating. Perhaps reflecting the disciples’ confusion, Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane is jumbled and hard to follow, and I wasn’t entirely convinced by Mary’s collapse as Jesus makes his way along the Via Dolorosa. Phoenix beautifully captures Jesus’ magnetism on a personal level – I felt as drawn to him as Mary seems, in the same untranslatable, not–romantic–but–still–smitten attraction. Yet at the same time, I didn’t see in Phoenix’s tender conversation either the passion or serenity which might have attracted me from a distance. The script as he preaches to the friends of a woman gang–raped and murdered by her husband and his brothers, that they should just forgive the men (“how does it feel to carry that hate?”) fell short of convincing – had I witnessed such a horrific attack I doubt my heart would be softened by such a pragmatic version of forgiveness. The gripping interactions between Mary and Jesus, the breath–taking panoramas, and the inexorable march towards Golgotha are relentlessly enthralling, and there is no let up. The film is so thought–provoking as to be overwhelming, though this says more about our viewing habits than the film itself.
This is not a perfect film. It is somewhat exhausting, and some viewers will take exception to its interpretation of the Biblical narratives. It is not a perfect film, but it is nearly perfect. The acting of the whole cast, naturalistic, nuanced, gritty, is successfully heart wrenching, the cinematography transfixing. It is so refreshing to see a strong character asserting her voice not through violence or noise but in a quiet strength and powerful love. The significance of a modern re–telling, formerly supported by The Weinstein Company, of an ancient story from a woman’s point of view cannot be underestimated. Mary is a clear–eyed, clear–voiced witness to someone who changed the course of human history, and this film makes us hers.
Mary Magdalene is on general release now.
Image from Universal Pictures UK.
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