Dreamy and wistful, Mary Magdalene begins with a scene of Mary drowning … and then rising again to the surface, with Matthew 13:31-32 serving as a backdrop, although it is instead told as Jesus’s response to Mary’s questions. Soon, the audience sees snapshots of the life of a woman in 33 A.D.: Mary calms a woman in difficult childbirth, prays faithfully at the synagogue, and dreams of a life not yoked to an arranged marriage. But when she rejects the marriage, her father and brother set her up for a midnight exorcism by near drowning. Only when Jesus shows up, known as a healer, does Mary see a different path.
We know that Mary Magdalene was one of the most faithful of Jesus’s disciples. A variety of backstories have been imagined or proposed, including that she was the woman who bathed Jesus’s feet with perfume and her hair (Luke 7:36-50), even though most traditions have abandoned the notion that she was a prostitute. In this elaboration on Mary’s story, Mary proves to be a strong, faithful follower of Jesus as a woman making her way in the world of men. [In Luke 8, we are told that Mary was one of several women who helped care for Jesus and the disciples out of their resources, and who had seven demons go out of her. This implies that she was well-to-do, not poor, and healed by Jesus of some issue.]
What happens when Mary follows Jesus divides the group of disciples. Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) believes that it will bring judgment on the disciples; others welcome her with open arms. These traditions rise up from the various Gnostic Gospels, where elaboration about Mary come from. In its dreamlike state, Mary Magdalene is more Last Days in the Desert than The Passion of the Christ, providing us clear parallels, like the opening vignette, the exorcism, and Mary’s self-driven baptism by Jesus.
Throughout, there are clear juxtapositions of the way Mary (as a woman) sees the gospel of Jesus compared to the more aggressive pursuits by men in terms of faith and mission. Mary wants to pray more than the time allotted at synagogue for women; Mary is the only one, Phoenix’s Jesus says, who has ever asked what it’s like to be with God. Mary emotes, feels, and empathizes in ways that the men are simply incapable of, even Jesus’s disciples, but she attracts scorn from men and women alike because she is breaking taboo.
While there are familiar scenes from the various gospels, the scenes of Lazarus’s resurrection, the healing of a man’s sight, and the clearing of the sellers in the Temple are the ones which show the potential of a different viewpoint into Jesus’s ministry in a wonderful way. But here lies the great irony: While the movie shows us Mary in a new way and gives her more of a voice, Jesus is still the focus of the film’s energy and power.
The Dove Take:
An intriguing take on the ministry of Jesus during the year leading up to the Crucifixion, Mary Magdalene provides a more nuanced look at Jesus’s disciples, but due to violence it might take a mature mind to process is Dove-Approved for Ages 18+.