From Pierre Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, biblical stories have inspired generations of filmmakers across the decades, with each director adding his own aesthetics and sensitivity to a story known by millions across the globe.
In Mary Magdalene, director Garth Davis (Lion, 2016) does a truly impressive job by bringing to life one of the most misunderstood figures in the history of Christianity and allowing us to look beyond the rigidity of the text, in order to reconcile ourselves with the life of a young woman who knew exactly what she wanted from life and was not afraid to take her destiny onto her own hands.
Set in the Holy Land in the first century and staring Rooney Mara in the principal role, Mary Magdalene not only manages to be faithful to the widely received story of Christ, but also goes further by adding a beautifully nuanced female-centric narrative to a story many of us thought we already knew.
We first come across Mary (Mara), as she battles with crippling feelings of alienation and intense anxiety about her own faith. Unwilling to marry a man chosen for her by her brother Daniel (played magnificently by Denis Ménochet), Mary is accused of bringing shame onto the family by daring to go against her brother’s choice, but when she meets Jesus of Nazareth (Joaquin Phoenix), a man widely believed to be the true prophet the whole of Judea has been waiting for, Mary decides to leave home and joins Jesus and his companions on their journey to Jerusalem. Soon the young woman finds herself deeply taken by Jesus and his ideas, and is guided by him to teach the women they meet on the way to the holy city.
Injecting a contemporary flavour to the proceedings, director Garth Davis, was by his own admission inspired by the bravery of contemporary women such as Malala Yousafzai whom he sees as the embodiment of defiance against the forces of obscurantism. Her quest for knowledge mirrors that of Mary Madgadlene in as much as both women were prepared to stop at nothing in order to fulfill their thirst for learning at any price.
Mara is mesmeric as Mary, her vulnerability is part of what makes her into one of the best actors to her generation. Phoenix puts in a robust performance as Jesus, however it is Tahar Rahim as who manages to put in a scene-stealing turn as Judas Iscariot. Other notable performances come courtesy of the brilliantly versatile Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter and Ariane Labed as Rachel.
On the whole Mary Magdalene grapples with ideas of female determination and will fulfillment all the way starting pretty faithful to the story of Christ and its genesis. Writers Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett should be commended for attempting to inject a feminist narrative to the story all the while avoiding the usual pitfalls of trying to modernise historical events for the sake of adding a contemporary flavour. All in all a truly astounding adaptation from all involved.