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.