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Mario Bautista, has been with the entertainment industry for more than 4 decades. He writes regular columns for People's Journal and Malaya.

Mar 24, 2018

Movie Review: Mary Magdalene - A New, Revisionist Look At A Saint Who Used To Be Considered As A Repentant Prostitute Or Adulteress

THERE ARE two faith-based films currently being shown in time for Holy Week, “Mary Magdalene” and “Paul, Apostle of Christ”. We’ll first review “Mary Magdalene” here. Mary of Magdala is always pictured as the sinner who changed her ways when she met Jesus and then became a groupie hanging around with His disciples.

But there are actually several women named Mary in the gospels, so at different times, Mary Magdalene has been confused with other women in the gospels, except the Virgin Mary. Both the gospels of Luke and Mark said Jesus cast seven demons out of her. One thing is sure, though, she was a witness to Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection, as mentioned in all the four canonical gospels.

It’s Pope Gregory I who recast her in the late 6th century as “the sinful woman”, the repentant adulteress or prostitute who Christ redeemed from her sins. There’s no concrete evidence that she was ever a whore, but the description stuck. Even in the movies, this was how she was portrayed, like in Martin Scorcese’s incendiary “The Last Temptation of Christ” and even Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, where she is the sinner whose life Jesus saves from being stoned to death. But in 2016, the Vatican corrected this misconception and called her the Apostle of the Apostles.

The new movie, “Mary Magdalene”, shows us a revisionist interpretation of who she really is.
Helmed by Australian director Garth Davis (“Lion”, his acclaimed debut film about an Indian boy adopted in Australia), it sets out to retrace Christ’ ministry as seen from the eyes of Mary. It also obviously wants to set some records straight to picture Mary as the unsung 13th disciple who became even closer to Jesus than his better known right hand man, Simon or Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor.)

Mary was born in the coastal town of Magdala at Galilee at a time when the men rule and make decisions for their women. “Our lives are not our own,” laments Mary who gathers and repairs fishnets with her sisters on the shore. Unlike other women, she’s a non-conformist who won’t get married. Her elder brother tells her: “It would please God for you to become a mother.”

But she refuses to do so and runs away that they think demons must have possessed her soul. So she is dragged down to the beach for an exorcism. The Rabbi and Healer from Nazareth who they call Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) happens to be on their village in the coast of Galilee at that time and meets her.

The Jews were then being oppressed by their merciless Roman conquerors. The people are hoping and waiting for a savior and they say that Jesus is the Messiah. Mary (Rooney Mara, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) joins him and his disciples and becomes a witness to the key events that take place during the final weeks of Jesus’ life.

The movie is not your usual glorified Hollywood Biblical epic about the life of Christ like “King of Kings”, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and “Jesus of Nazareth”. This is more akin to Passolini’s “Gospel According to St. Matthew” in terms of its spare and neo-realistic kind of approach. The biggest difference is the choice of Joaquin Phoenix in the role of Jesus. More identified with bad guy character roles, the uncharismatic Joaquin’s demeanor and projection make him look more life a New Age cult leader from California than the son of God.

The big events in Christ’s life are missing here. After Jesus leaves Galilee, he is shown going to Cana, where the Bible says he performs his very first miracle in a wedding where the water is turned into wine, but that is not at all shown here. There is no sermon on the mount or the multiplication of loaves. Instead, there is a sermon to women and Mary Magdalene becomes the first empowered woman who chooses to take charge of her own life.

Jesus is shown bringing back a dead man to life but it’s not mentioned if it’s Lazarus and the way it’s mounted on screen is very different from the account on Lazarus described in the gospels. There is also a sequence where Jesus gets angry when he sees the merchants at the temple and there’s the entrance to Jerusalem where people are shown waving palms.

Then there’s the last supper where Mary is given more prominence at the table than all the other disciples, and the prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane, where Mary sees Judas giving Jesus the iconic kiss. After this, we see her being knocked down by Roman guards and when she wakes up again, she sees Jesus already being tortured on his way to calvary. The director presumably thinks you already know the whole story and you just connect the dots or fill in the blanks. But he looks more kindly on Judas Iscariot, the only other disciple given more prominence after Peter. Judas (Tahar Rahim) is not projected like a traitor but more like a good-looking fanboy who betrayed his idol due to a crisis of faith.

Rooney Mara plays the title role with conviction and sincerity. She appears in almost every scene,
showing her tending to the dying victims of Roman cruelty, listening intently to the words of Jesus, having a lengthy conversation with Jesus’ mother and fending off the envy of the other disciples, especially Peter, who definitely has reason to feel jealous. He tells her: “You weakened us. You weakened him.” Well, to begin with, unlike Peter, she realizes early on that Jesus is not the Messiah who will lead a violent revolt against the Romans but a Savior who speaks of a different kind of redemption.

Take note that although the movie is about Christ, in its opening, it’s stated that the story happend in 33CE, not the usual BC or AD. BC is before Christ and AD is Anno Domini and this traditionally labeled the years in the Julian and Gregorian calendars. But now, they use CE, which means Common Era, whatever that means, but is just a clear way of avoiding the mention of Christ and any reference to Christianity. What a cop out, isn't it?