Mary Magdalene movie review

I saw the Mary Magdalene movie tonight and a few people have asked what I thought of it. So I’ve written this brief review.

Even though I took into account that playing the part of Jesus is a difficult role, I was disappointed. Jesus is depicted as flakey, unsociable, and pessimistic and, apart from an excerpt of the Lord’s prayer (with my prefered “tomorrow’s bread” translation), Jesus barely says anything that is reminiscent of his words recorded in the canonical Gospels. I have no idea what he was going on about in his first speech in the movie. His dialogue is utterly uninspiring. Also, unless I missed it, there’s no hint that Jesus is the Son of God or divine, but he is portrayed as a healer.

The casting and characterisations were not well done. For example, Mary Magdalene is depicted as young and inexperienced, and, unlike the real Mary, not as an independently wealthy woman who financially supported Jesus’ mission (cf. Luke 8:1-3). And the actress who played Jesus’ mother is too old. Some of the actors playing the Twelve are too old also. Jesus’ real disciples would have been, most probably, all young men. (Think of the age of students.) Not to mention that Joaquín Phoenix, at 43, is about 10 years older than Jesus was when he was crucified. And only a few of the actors look ethnically Jewish, though there was an attempt to sound “Jewish”.

Perhaps not surprisingly considering the title, Mary Magdalene is the central character of the movie, but it is at the expense of the male disciples, and even of Jesus, whose characters are wishy-washy and unappealing. Mary is the heroine. She is the one who understands and keeps the faith. Of the male disciples, Judas is the most likeable. Simply because he’s the only character who is cheerful and has some verve.

Thankfully, the movie does not portray Jesus and Mary Magdalene as husband and wife, or as lovers. And thankfully, it doesn’t portray Mary as a penitent prostitute. On the other hand, early in the movie, “Jesus” contradicts what the Gospel of Luke says, that Mary had seven demons (Luke 8:2).

There were some slightly odd things in the story, such as men and women sitting separately in the synagogue, and Peter and Jesus baptising new disciples. But there were even more very odd things, like the “cave of the dead” scene. And I was horrified that a woman was told by “Jesus” that she needed to forgive the men who had raped and murdered a woman in her village. Why on earth did they stick that in the movie?! What were the script-writers thinking?

As I was watching the movie, I was wondering how the script-writers were going to tell the story of Mary Magdalene being the first person to see the risen Lord, as there are minor variations in the Gospel accounts concerning this. The solution was to come up with a couple of scenes that bear no resemblance to the Gospel accounts. It is even unclear in the movie that Jesus really has risen from death; it could be understood that Mary is, instead, seeing visions of the post-crucifixion Jesus that only she can see. (After the mercifully short crucifixion scene, Jesus only appears to Mary in the movie, twice, not to the male disciples, not to anyone else.)

The major characters, the setting, and the bare outline of the movie’s story come from the four Gospels of the Bible, but there are also strong allusions to the non-canonical Gospels of Thomas, of Mary, and of Judas. And, apart from the Lord’s Prayer and a reference to the temple being called “a house of prayer”, the dialogue is, disappointingly, all made up. The dialogue is also unnaturally sparse.

In the movie’s favour is the scenery. The movie is visually impressive and beautiful to look at. And the ancient city of Jerusalem, with its temple, looks suitably imposing and real enough.

Some other pluses: I thought the character of Jesus was introduced slowly and cleverly. I liked Mary’s water-dream scenes, though it wasn’t clear what they symbolised. The attempted exorcism was interesting. The shame her family experienced because of Mary leaving to follow Jesus was expressed well. But I was hoping they would do more with the idea that Mary had a compassionate, healing nature exhibited in a confronting childbirth scene and in the “cave of the dead” scene.

I don’t recommend this movie. The script and characterisations are awful, even if the acting and scenery aren’t. Overall, the storyline is vague, dull and unedifying. The music score adds to the depressing and lethargic tone. There is no joy in the movie and it was hard to sit through. Sadly, Mary Magdalene’s story was not told.

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