Monday 26 March 2018

Mary Magdalene (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: In 1st century C.E., Jewish woman Mary Magdalene (Rooney Mara) is stuck in a society that treats her existence as inherently lesser than the closest man, not to mention the oppression of her people by the Roman Empire. However, she soon connects with the prophet Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix), who along with his Apostles seem fit to change all that. As they travel the cities, spreading their gospel of forgiveness, it seems that salvation will come in a form that none of them could have ever predicted.

Mara’s casting may bring to mind certain problems relating to the dramatisation of the story of Jesus and all the whitewashing that has taken place around it (I mean, I can’t be the only one who still remembers the blunder that is her as Tiger Lily), but that initial worry doesn’t linger nearly enough to be of a real issue. Instead, her quiet sense of strength is what hooks us in, starting on a very powerful note with her talking a woman through labor and staying consistent throughout. Joaquin, knowing his own personal history with religions and toxic faith through the Phoenix’s past with the Children of God, must have known that this was going to be something decidedly different from the norm if he decided to work on it. Indeed, that’s what we get with his depiction of Jesus of Nazareth, bringing out the abject humanity of the character through a lot of soft-spoken, clear and emotional musings on his mission, his faith and ultimately his fate.
Tahar Rahim likewise brings us a very different interpretation of the infamous traitor in Judas, depicting him less as an agent of deceit or even as a reluctant participant in the ultimate plan, and more as someone who had just as much trouble reconciling his faith as the others. Namely Peter, played here by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who comes across far more as the deceiver in how his connection with Jesus ends up altering his understanding of the man and his intentions.

Those of you who would seek this out as an invigorating piece of faith cinema, something built on the loud emotions of Jesus and his mission of sacrifice, will likely be disappointed. In tone, this is more akin to Scorsese’s Silence than Scorsese’s Last Temptation Of Christ, one that relies more on being grounded in tangible reality than being lifted by higher purposes. Indeed, director Garth Davis shows the same connection to silence that he did with Lion, often letting the sheer lack of sound do the talking. Even with the late Jóhann Jóhannsson being credited on the soundtrack, with this being the last score he put together before his passing in February of this year, you’re far more likely to hear the sound of crickets and cloth-against-skin than you are anything non-diegetic.
To add to this, the acting across the board sticks to this more soft-spoken tone, letting the words and actions carry the emotional weight as opposed to any immediate showing of emotion. Admittedly, this insistence on quiet can make fair chunks of the film feel underwhelming, as without any louder moments to anchor it, the audience can drift away a little too easily. But still, the effect that this has on the production shouldn’t be discredited, not entirely. Because of the emphasis on more intimate and grounded showings of emotion and personality, it gives the film a very serene, almost meditative feel. I’ll admit that I found myself fidgeting a bit in my seat while watching this, but leaving the cinema, I felt decidedly calmer than I did walking in.

This is aided by what the film actually does have to say, and it all starts with the choice in focal-point character. Mary Magdalene, as far as the retelling of the story of Jesus is concerned, has always been presented as a minor footnote. A companion not worthy enough to mentioned in the same breath as the Apostles, and whenever she is mentioned, it’s either in reference to her being a prostitute or that one conspiracy theory about her carrying Jesus’ child. I was actually expecting this film to take that former point and run with it, detailing how Jesus wasn’t a friend of the ruling class, but instead spent his time with the poor, the destitute, and the “deplorables” of the time, including the prostitutes.
This was not what awaited me, though. Instead, what I got was a look at how religion has always given the short end of the stick to women throughout its history. Most organised religions were constructed out of the words of Men, and since sexism has existed in our species for as long as we’ve had words describe sexes in the first place, women were and still are treated as beasts of burden. As the givers of life through birth. As property. Through the perspective of Mary, one that the film stays firmly anchored to throughout the course of the narrative, we are shown not only the treatment she and others of the time were given but also the simmering feminine strength they possessed. It highlights the realistic mindset of the time, one that has echoed into the present with alarming clarity, while actively questioning it with a combination of then-contemporary knowledge and now-contemporary understanding.

Of course, discussions of the mistreatment of women is only a symptom to what this film sees as being the bigger problem: The way that Man interpreted the will of the Lord, in this case embodied through ‘Rabbi’ Jesus. Even during Jesus’ lifetime, faith has always had an element of the political attached to it, shown here through Jesus and his followers wanting to fight against the oppression of the Roman Empire. In the past, that connection between the political and the spiritual has led to some rather dire situations, from the use of Jesus’ image and purpose as an excuse for Western Christians to decry others to even warping the historical events for the intent of doing the same cultural damage, like with Mel Gibson’s infamous anti-Semitism sewn into the fabric of The Passion Of The Christ.

Here, that proximity to “the enemy” is used to show what Jesus was truly preaching during his time: Forgiveness, not aggression, towards that enemy. This narrowly avoids the usual “forgive even those who are unrepentant” missteps of other contemporary Christian films, and instead emphasises how more aggression and more hatred only darkens the human soul. You defeat the enemy by rising above their faults, not by indulging in them. Through this, the film takes aim at how that original, potentially-divine message was warped for the means of personal gain, political gain or just plain misunderstanding of the message itself. All because the one person who saw the messenger as human and actually listened to him and his woes is the one that history decided was of little importance. Because she didn’t fit into their idea of what true devotion looked like.
Even though this film echoes some familiar sentiments connected to the Son of God, like his disdain for those trying to buy their way into His good grace and his own fears about the sacrifice he must make, the story reframes those sentiments and asks three very simple questions. We have heard what he wanted us to hear, right? But have we actually taken it on board? Are we actually doing his will, or only bending his words to fit our own?

All in all, while a bit lethargic in the moment, this is the kind of religious cinema I would expect to see from an Aussie creative. The acting all works well, even if it might be a little too understated for its own good, and the visuals give a very earthy and realistic depiction of the time and its people, but it’s the way this film tackles the subject of personal faith that really rings true here. It highlights the systemic sexism in Christianity today, tracing its roots back to this film's title character, and asks whether those who claim to be working in His name are actually doing so. With how much the Christian message has been diluted thanks to the intervention of the United States, what with its megachurches and prosperity gospel and linking natural disasters to their own individual prejudices, this, like Silence before it, feels like a religious message that should be listened to and administered.

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