A new movie about Mary of Magdala has the chance of breaking age-old myths about the most important female disciple of Christ.
It amazes me that there seems to be a Bible-related movie or TV film released every year. After “Risen,” “Killing Jesus,” and “Son of God,” it’s going to be “Mary Magdalene” next year, directed by Australian director Garth Davis. The trailer dropped last week and it looks quite promising.
I’m always interested in how filmmakers depict Jesus and the Judean people. As it’s most often the case, the films tell more about the people who make them than about the complicated biblical stories themselves, and they become a reflection of shifting weights in popular theology and historical scholarship—or the lack thereof.
Mary Magdalene as an Apostolic Leader
American actress Rooney Mara plays Mary Magdalene, the female disciple of Jesus who is mentioned in all four Gospels. The Bible tells nothing of her background. We only learn that Jesus has liberated her from seven evil spirits. Since she was so close to Jesus (in some non-canonical Gospels she is even portrayed as his lover with a superior understanding of is teaching) a lot of legends have built up around their relationship and her persona. Much of this has been used to reduce her to a projection surface for sexist notions about women since she was often packetized together with the figure of the repentant prostitute.
The exciting thing about the trailer is that there is no hint at Mary having been a sex worker before meeting Jesus. That myth has been retold too many times and I hope the film will find some other ideas as to her identity.
The most promising aspect of this movie seems to be the gender role-breaking tension between Mary and the patriarchal mentality. Scholars recognize Mary Magdalene as the leader of Jesus’ female disciples, but for a religious teacher to allow women followers in the first place was virtually unheard of at the time. There might be even a reference to Mary’s leadership role over the male disciples after Jesus’ death in the movie which deserves more investigation. Jesus words “You are my witness” toward the end of the trailer highlights her outstanding role as the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection. Good stuff!
“Gladiator” actor Joaquin Phoenix as a mature Jesus is another promising choice, and he seems to breathe some warmth into his portrayal. What’s interesting here is that Jesus is shown performing baptisms. This is in line with Prof. Joan E. Taylor’s great research on John the Baptist and puts Jesus in direct line with his mentor John.
What I don’t appreciate is that Jesus’ look with his beard and long split hair follows the well-trodden path of Christian aesthetics. Costumes look well-crafted but follow largely the standards of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”
Location and Cast Diversity
Somehow the colors and the quality of light reminded me of that film—and voilà: “Mary Magdalene” was shot in Italy, just like “The Passion.” The south Italian town of Matera doubles as Jerusalem, just as in “The Passion” and Pier Pasolini’s “The Gospel according to St. Matthew.” Well, the hills and grass of south Italy look certainly much more like Palestine than Morocco where these kinds of films tend to be shot. There are handsome vistas of ancient Jerusalem and the rural landscape. I’m also delighted to see that the attire of the Judean priests looks authentic.
What I don’t quite understand is how so many black African-looking people show up in the movie. The ancient world was quite globalized with people traveling all over the Roman empire and my understanding is that there were people from North Africa in the Roman army and citizenry (as shown in my comic). But when speaking of Judea, I doubt that ethnic variety was that big. Are those Africans migrant settlers or do they belong to a community of converts to the Judean religion? As for white folks playing Near Eastern Gospel characters, well… let’s not even go there now. At least the names in the cast suggest that there are Jewish actors for some important characters!
For a wonderful overview of the historical Mary Magdalene and her afterlife in pop culture listen to Marc Goodacre’s podcast NT Pod:
NT Pod 13: Mary Magdalene: the First Woman Apostle – Mark Goodacre