New film production of Mary Magadalene "an experience almost too grey and undefined to get frustrated about"

Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus and Rooney Mara as Mary in a scene from the movie

Religion is something that is rife with cinematic potential. What is really unfortunate is that filmmakers have often failed to pick up that inherent potential with both hands. They start off with this great amount of respect for scripture, and then forget to respect the medium they are working with. Risks are not taken, and the resulting films end up almost too pious for their own good. The sincere, artistic work is lost under a torrent of cheap, pandering films that fail to do justice to the religiously-led life.

It is a real shame then that Garth Davis’ new film Mary Magdalene does very little to break this trend. The film stars Rooney Mara as the titular Mary, an enigmatic biblical figure regularly mischaracterised as a prostitute. Davis’ film aims to rescue her from those misconceptions, presenting her instead as a sort of ‘Apostle of the Apostles’, the first of the disciples to truly understand the message of Jesus Christ, played in the film by Joaquin Phoenix.

Both Mara and Phoenix are great actors, as is Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing the disciple Peter, but their efforts are somewhat undercut by the film’s overall toothlessness. It’s just too pious; it acts as a revisionist take on biblical legends, but is too afraid to change anything dramatic. Most of the changes it does make are to the effect of leaving things out, more than adding elements in. No longer is Judas the reprehensible traitor he once was; no more does Peter deny Jesus three times before the cock crows. The film preaches of so much light, but never any dark, and the result is that scenes have no tension, no antagonist, no palpable conflict. While this does add to the pleasantly serene ending, it does leave the film feeling limp, possibly even boring.

Davis’ direction has a lot to do with Mary Magdalene’s resounding murkiness. Many of the film’s scenes work well enough on their own, but they fail to knit together in the way they should. There is just no real flow. The camera is at times certain and at others confused. Cinematographer Greig Fraser never lets any of the shots linger; he seems almost too eager to get onto the next biblical set piece. In the end, it backfires. The film is not meditative, but slow. It captures none of the ascetic grace its characters exhibit, but instead feels detached, distant, even pointless.

There are some well-executed visual motifs, and the narrative overall picks up through the middle, but the film as a whole is just too inert to make the impact it wants to. Its subject matter is fascinating but the screen lacks grit. The frame is slow to move but refuses to linger on anything meaningful. Watching it is like receiving a huge jumble of blessings and curses, an experience almost too grey and undefined to get frustrated about. I wanted it to be on the level of great religious films like Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew or The Last Temptation of Christ, but it ultimately fumbles its central premise, a story worth being told, just not in the way it is here.

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