Telling the story of Jesus’s last days from the point of view of the only female disciple is the interesting aim of Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene.
Moon-faced Rooney Mara plays the headstrong girl from rock-strewn fishing village Magdala who, following a visit from the “Healer” to her local market place, defies her father to run off and follow the man from Nazareth. Jesus himself is played by Joaquin Phoenix with full beard and glaring eyes, just the sort of pretentious hippy of whom any father, let alone a nice Jewish fisherman, would be wary.
But, you know, Mary’s Mary and off she goes for a swift baptism by Jesus in the Sea of Galilee “that she may be awake for the days that follow.” I, too, had a similar epiphany: someone chuck a bucket of water over my head to get me through any more of this.
The film’s earnest purpose is to cast Mary Magdalene in a new light after centuries of being considered a prostitute or fallen woman, a calumny instigated – according to the film’s epitaph – by Pope Gregory in AD521 and a misconception that’s stuck ever since.
However, in his quest for a modernisation, Davis doesn’t come up with anything else for Mary to do. Once free from the conventional shackles of fishing net repair and praying in synagogue, she spends the film gazing up at Jesus from under an old table cloth. If that look was supposed to be devotion or something more divine, Mara reveals nothing behind the cheekbones.
So what’s supposed to be a welcome, revisionist, feminist slant on the Jesus story instead takes away the one job Mary at least had. So much for equal pay now. Poor girl’s reduced to a sort of gawping groupie and, in a foot-washing scene, trainee pedicurist. Even with the best intentions, I’m not sure how feminist a situation this could ever be – I mean, like most men, he thinks he’s God… and so does she.
As for the rest of the disciples, you wonder what they’re getting out of it. Fun looks thin on the ground, and enlightenment’s a long way off when you’re lumbered with lines like: “Of course I don’t question the miracles, Judas.” Not even actors of the stature of Chiwitel Ejiofor, as Peter. can make that sound right.
Perhaps the real mysteries are, given this is the Bible and the very least you could say for that particular book is it’s got some pretty decent lines, how unmemorable the dialogue is. And why there’s no chemistry in the Jesus and Mary relationship, given Phoenix and Mara are allegedly a real-life couple. There’s no passion in this Passion and they look less First Dates, more Last Supper.
At least it’s pretty to look at, if you like rock, sand and hessian, beautifully shot by Aussie cinematographer Greig Fraser who uses familiar ‘biblical’ locations such as Matera in Puglia and Trapani in Sicily, and there’s an impressive re-creation of old Jerusalem for the film’s best scene, when Joaquin loses it with the money lenders.
I admit it’s hard to approach this tale without Monty Python’s Life of Brian haunting proceedings, but in that case you’re probably best advised to leave out the scene where a crowd of women in black veils starts chanting “Messiah, Messiah” at Joaquin Phoenix.
Sadly, director Garth Davis is not a naughty boy. He’s a goody-goody who’s ended up tiptoeing around any controversy or revisionist heresy. It almost leaves you pining for Mel Gibson whose Passion of the Christ – and many other recent faith-based movies – have proven this stuff can be huge box office no matter how awful the movie.
But Davis is so worried about offending anyone, even atheists, that his film doesn’t even have faith in itself. We’re left with an airy-fairy, new age version, a vegan turkey in time for Easter – and you can bet, if there was a feeding of the five thousand scene, this Jesus would have got out the sourdough loaves and ordered Mary Magdalene to start mashing avocados.