Let’s talk about Mary Magdalene and her new film by Anjeanette LeBoeuf

In keeping in line with my last month’s post, movies are on the docket, 2018’s Mary Magdalene. It’s fairly recent with not a lot of discussion around it. Here we go. The film written by two women, Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, focuses on Mary of Magdala who encounters Jesus. The film stars American Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus.

Now this is not the first film depicting Mary Magdalene but it is the first mainstream film that does NOT depict her as Pope Gregory I claimed that she was, a fallen woman, a prostitute, a woman of ill fame. Mary is depicted as being a family-based person who is highly devout.

The dialogue feels heavily influenced by the Gnostic gospels. The film depicts the disconnect that the disciples had in understanding what and who Jesus really was. The disciples want revolution, a physical ending of the suffering inflicted by Roman occupation, and independence of the Jewish peoples. It is Mary who starts to understand and witness that Jesus’s message and purpose is to bring about a revolution of the mind and spirit. She is the catalyst for Jesus to realize that while he had been preaching and healing to those in need, he had failed to fully minister to women.

There is a very poignant scene where Mary tells Jesus that the women of Magdala were too afraid to be baptized alongside the men and that they were not allowed to follow Jesus. This is after the film depicts Mary choosing to leave her family to follow Jesus becoming an outcast due to her being an unmarried woman traveling in the company of men. When they arrive in Cana, Jesus goes to the washing wells, an area filled with women and has a very honest conversation with women.

A woman states “We are woman. Our lives are not our own.” Jesus remarks “Your spirit is your own. And you alone answer for that. And your spirit is precious to God. As precious as that of your husband, or your father.” The scene ends with Mary baptizing the women of Cana.

It is a powerful scene: I couldn’t stop crying as I felt it deep within my bones the sacrality of women in that moment.

Later, after he resurrects Lazarus, the entire town greets Jesus in gratitude and support. Jesus is honored by this and states, “You have given this gift of your faith and your faith lights up the whole world. So, I will give you this gift of prayer. It is the prayer of the Baptist, it is the prayer of the humble, and the meek, and the poor in spirit, and those who hunger to know God’ true kingdom. The kingdom which will be yours in the days to come.” He then tells Mary, “Go to them while they pray, bless them. Be my hands.”

He then gives them what we know of as “The Lord’s Prayer” but what is fascinating about this scene is the genderless language used in the prayer “Lord, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, give us today, the bread of tomorrow. And forgive us our debts. For we forgive everyone who is indebted to us.  And do not bring us to the test. Amen.” The town then responds by declaring him Messiah.

The film does not truly distinguish all the disciples of Jesus. Outside of Mary, only Peter and Judas have significant scene time. The film also does some interesting things for Judas Iscariot. Judas befriends Mary and shows the layers that Judas could have had which is missing in the canonical gospels.

Judas is a widower whose pregnant wife died of starvation due to the harsh treatment by Romans. Judas does believe in Jesus but ultimately, in this movie, succumbs to trying to make Jesus fit into his idea of what the Messiah was. One of his last scenes after his betrayal shows Mary comforting Mudas, performing an act of forgiveness which Jesus had earlier taught about.

Peter struggles throughout the film in accepting Mary into their group and her understandings of Jesus’s teachings which are added to Peter’s general other failings found in the 4 Christian canonical gospels. Peter is played by English African actor Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Peter is commanded by Jesus to take Mary and deliver the message to the people. They go to Samaria where they find a town devastated due to Roman occupation and he is changed by Mary’s outward example of mercy. In the ending scene, Peter does accept that Mary saw the risen Jesus but rejects her role and mission for what it means for their group. This last scene of the disciples choosing to move forward without Jesus and his foundational message of forgiveness and building the kingdom with love, care, and forgiveness sets up the very real reality of church dynamics. As a feminist, this scene is POWERFUL. It is validating, and affirming, and truthful in the realities that for centuries women’s roles, voices, and leadership have been snuffed out, pushed aside, and co-opted. Peter states, “Every man in this room is his rock, his church upon which we will build his glorious new world with one purpose and one message.” Which Mary responds is not truly Jesus’s message but their own and she will not stay silent.

Mary leaves the men and goes out teaching Jesus’s message of love, caring, and forgiveness to which all the women follow her. The last scene is the film’s acknowledgment that all the Christian gospels place Mary of Magdala at Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection. But that that due to Pope Gregory I’s edict, Mary has spent the last 2,000 years being misidentified and mistreated. It states it was only in 2016, that the Vatican labeled Mary as “Apostle of the Apostles” to try and correct this wrong.

Overall, this was a thought-provoking and refreshing take on Mary Magdalene’s story so very needed in 2020.

Anjeanette LeBoeuf is hunkering down during this pandemic and hopes all that reads this are safe and well. She is the Queer Advocate for the Western Region of the American Academy of Religion. Her focuses are divided between South Asian religions and religion and popular culture. She is focused on exploring the representations of women in all forms of popular culture and how religion plays into them. During this pandemic, she has started to tackle to read the mounds of books that have piled up and is simultaneously reading YA fantasy books and strenuous academic books. 


Categories: Film

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17 replies

  1. I’ve never heard of this movie before, but it sounds like one I’d actually like to see. (Not a statement I make about 99% of movies.) The actors you mention I know as excellent actors, and the story you summarize…..well, it’s the best version of the famous story–that collection of lies–about Magdalen I’ve ever heard of. What this movie does with Judas reminds me just a bit of Godspell, a rock musical from 1971 with music by Stephen Schwartz (who also did Pippin and Wicked). Jesus and Judas sing a cool duet.

    Thanks for this post! You’re altogether right: we need this movie today. (I wonder how Pope Francis would react to it. Duh.) But how can we go to the movies? Well, I just did a brief Amazon search: it’s a prime video, but I don’t see it as a DVD. (Amazon does of course list the ton of books about Mary we’re familiar with.) Your post has inspired me to keep looking for a DVD. Thanks again! And bright blessings to all of us who honor Mary Magdalen (including Elizabeth Cunningham, who wrote four novels about a Celtic Mary named Maeve). Cheers!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Following up. After eating breakfast, playing with the cat, and reading for a while, I decided to see if i could find a DVD of this movie. I found several DVDs for sale on eBay and just ordered one.

      If anyone else wants to see the movie Anjeanette describes in today’s post, eBay is where to go.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Barbara,

        I look forward to hearing how you experienced the film.

        I will say this, there are a few weird moments of the film which I attributed it to the director and actor’s decisions on how to portray it. And they don’t entirely reject Mary’s sexuality and potential connection with Jesus. But in the grand scheme of things, those are minor to all the other powerful and reclaiming elements of this film.


    • Thank you for mentioning The Maeve Chronicles, Barbara! And thank you, Anjeanette, for bring this film to our attention.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. I greatly enjoyed that movie! There are many fine scholarly books on Mary Magdalene as well by Karen L. King, Cynthia Bourgeault, Bruce Chilton and Jean-Yves Leloup to name a few. I feel Mary M. provides the major “missing-link” in Christianity. She “got it” when the other male apostles did not. Unfortunately, her character was assassinated for years. Thankfully, we are beginning to see the truth.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have not heard of this movie, but I am really grateful that you brought this to our attention and I will
    definitely look for it.Thank you so much

    Liked by 1 person

    • It didn’t get a lot of publicity outside of a bunch of social media that the actress Rooney Mara started dated Joaquin Phoenix who played Jesus. I also think that as it was done by a secular production house, many Christians Churches and communities did not want to support it. The film holds a very clear message that women have the right and capacity for leadership within Christianity which can be very threatening to the male/patriarchal leadership.


      • Thank you for your reply, I really appreciate it. It doesn’t surprise me that many Christian churches would not support it. Because of the importance of the recognition of women right of leadership, I am so drawn to watch this movie and of course the threat to patriarchal leadership is a great issue for the male. By the way , I found it on Netflix as a DVD, which is wonderful, can’t wait to see it, as I have already recommended to two other women friends. Thank you again. “Minds together” from Cornelia

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I rented this movie, and I thank you for introducing it to me. It’s good to be reminded that founders of major religions have personal relationships that influence how the religions take shape and develop when the founder is gone. So many of these important relationships are with women, and, as the life of Mary Magdalene demonstrates, their stories are so often overlooked, under-represented, or altogether falsified. The part of the movie that affected me the most was that last scene with Mary and the disciples, when Mary speaks of the “Kingdom” of Heaven being inside everyone’s heart, not outside in some idealized society. So important to understand! At least for me, a practitioner of Buddhism as well as Christianity. For another illuminating take on Mary Magdalene, I highly recommend Elizabeth Cunningham’s The Passion of Mary Magdalene.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am so glad you got to watch it.

      That scene was very powerful with the message it was portraying as well as the critique of leadership within the current church, narratives, and teachings.

      There is so much that I find similarities with in-regards to Buddhism and the Gnostic Gospels. The film definitely made me ponder once again what Christianity would have looked like if women had continued in leadership.


  5. With all my heart did I want to love this movie. But it felt plodding and dull and I strained to keep myself watching it. I wish it had had another round of good editing and review b/c it needed more color and vibrancy to get beyond a niche market to the wider world that needs to hear this story.


    • Eva,

      I do agree with the fact that there were a lot of weird stylized and over-dramatic scenes in the movie. I cringed during the Lazarus scene. I always was highly disappointed that the story/film could not completely rid themselves of the sexuality plot point.

      But I will say this, for it being the first film in over 50 years to depict Mary Magdalene as she is within the Scriptures and her being front and center to the truth of Jesus, I will overlook the faults.

      I would be interested to hear from you if there is a Mary Magdalene film you would recommend?


  6. I wish I knew of one to recommend, I really do, especially as I find fault with this one for it’s unwatchability. But if someone does make such a movie, I hope they make it for broader consumption. By that I don’t mean sticking to the usual movie making lens of “what would a teenage boy want to watch” but to make it stylistically engaging so that many people will choose to watch it.


  7. Thank you for posting this review, now I want to go check it out. I wasn’t sure whether to bother – skeptical and not up for more anti-mary hogwash – but you’ve given me something to look forward to watching.


  8. Thank you for bringing this important film to our attention!


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