Film review: ‘MARY MAGDALENE’, by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Lion director Garth Davis’ new film Mary Magdalene is a low-key, very slow moving but occasionally stirring religious drama that presents a confluence of Christianity and feminism. As well as telling the familiar story of Jesus (or at least some of it), the film attempts to resurrect the image of Mary who since the middle ages has often been wrongly represented as a prostitute.

Mary (Rooney Nara) is portrayed as a respected young woman who lives in the fishing village of Magdala. Rejecting the life laid out for her by a patriarchal society and her family, she takes up with the disciples of controversial local ‘rabbi’ (as he is called in this film) named Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix).

The film follows her as she accompanies Jesus through the New Testament highlights including the resurrection of Lazarus and Jesus’ rampage at the temple in Jerusalem. Along the way she translates Jesus’ at times obscure and ‘new-agey’ messages of forgiveness and rejection of earthly desires to her own life.

The film is as much about the status of women as it is about the origins of Christianity as, even among the disciples, Mary encounters prejudice as some initially fear persecution of their movement for accepting a woman who has flaunted social convention.

Rooney Mara delivers a slightly underwhelming performance as Mary. Some reviews have compared her to a humourless cyborg but it’s more a case of an oppressed person in Mary struggling to find some emotional outlet. Joaquin is slightly comical as Jesus, his wild hair and crazy eyes are more reminiscent of Charles Manson and his hippy ramblings occasionally verge on parody. He’s more of an angry Jesus than the one we normally see in cinema depictions while the disciples are often like a security detail and campaign team.

The big problem for many will be this film’s pacing. Some may find it it hypnotic while others will just think it’s dull. The slow pacing has the advantage of capturing more realistically the rhythms of a group of people on a pilgrimage.

With its muted tone, natural lighting and location shooting the film is quite immersive and thankfully eschews, the pomposity often associated with religious movies. Despite the American accents this is more reminiscent of a European art house film. Also, while the brutality of crucifixion isn’t sugar-coated, this is a much more subtle and restrained film than something like The Passion of The Christ.

Ultimately, this is an advertisement for Christianity and those averse to religious messages in films will find it hard to embrace. Those unperturbed by religious messages will find an artful at times emotional but unremarkable film.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Historical religious drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Garth Davis.

Release date: 22nd March 2018.

Running time: 120 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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