Directed by: Garth Davis
Written by: Helen Edmundson & Philippa Goslett
Starring: Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim
The story of Jesus Christ and his disciples holds as the foundation of the Christian faith and even if some religions do not consider him the son of God, some see him as a prophet, who had timeless teachings. It’s safe to say that the idea of Jesus and his story has reached such global notoriety that exploring any radical new ideas will inherently have risk that lies ahead. Luckily enough, this film justifies its existence by shining a light on one of the most controversial women in history.
Betrothed to be wed and raise a family in Judea, Mary Magdalene (Rooney Mara) encounters the visit of a man many say travels and performs miracles. That just so happens to be Jesus of Nazareth (Joaquin Phoenix) and once Mary learns about his teachings and prophecizing, she decides to leave everything and follow him. Through this journey, Mary learns more about evangelizing and how to work with the other apostles that follow Jesus.
The best aspect of this film undoubtedly comes from the cinematography as it captures the world around these individuals in a visually stunning way. Every scene from the baptisms and the different miracles displayed have a very up-close feel to it that puts the audience right in the middle of the action. Additionally, the way it demonstrates the beliefs of Jesus Christ comes together better than many other similar feature films. It shows the radical nature of the teachings of Jesus and how it impacted others that believed or doubted him. Every word written of the teachings of Jesus has been dissected and interpreted in many different ways for centuries, but this film gets down to the purity and textual meaning of his words. They had a beautiful simplicity, even if others want to insist that other meanings exist through the text. Mary Magdalene reaches its heights when exploring those teachings.
I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on the casting of this film, which comes off incredibly odd but shows that Hollywood still has its blunders in regards to diversity. The image of Jesus has gone through different phases throughout history with the most popularized version being the paintings of the Renaissance depicting him as a pale man. Considering that Jesus and Mary Magdelene were both born in the Middle East, the idea of them both being as pale as Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix does not really add up. It proved to be uninspiring casting for these two historic figures, despite me being a huge fan of both of these actors. The bad casting does not take away from their performances because they were both quite good in their respective roles. It makes it much more interesting when the film casts much more accurate actors for the other disciples. Heck, Chiwetel Ejiofor was even cast as Saint Peter. Combining these two realities makes it rather questionable as to the skin tones of specific actors in their roles. The real answer unexpectedly has its roots in money because Phoenix and Mara have clout in the film industry. Their names are most likely the reason this film ever made it to theaters. However, I must admit the casting did leave a negative impression on me.
While the casting was rather lame, the film also had some pacing issues. The story does not have much to cover but it sure takes its time to make its point and I’m usually a fan of slow burns, especially when it benefits the story. The story dragged at times and part of it might have been from knowing the story from my upbringing. It had the opportunity to be tighter, but Garth Davis had his vision of how this story was going to be told. While I respect it, I cannot say that I enjoyed that aspect.
The telling of this tale continues to be important because the reputation and lasting legacy of Mary Magdalene have shifted throughout history from the common belief being that she was a prostitute to now being rightfully considered one of the apostles of Jesus Christ. That will inform the lasting legacy of this film. It almost did not happen because this film was stuck and waiting for a release date. It has now appeared a year after it premiered in other nations and it stands as an important story, with good acting, great cinematography, but average storytelling.