Mary Magdalene: The reviewers reviewed

I haven’t seen the film in question but I’ve read a lot of reviews now and it’s not clear whether this film is really terrible or really powerful. It’s also not clear what people think about the main character Mary Magdalene.

History hasn’t treated Mary very fairly. The Economist explains it like this

The film’s declared aim is to exonerate Mary Magdalene from a centuries-old charge, and a common misconception. In the sixth century, the Roman church opined that she was the same person as the unnamed sinful woman who, in another New Testament scene, wipes the feet of Jesus with tears and perfume (the Orthodox church never accepted this fusion). This papal pronouncement was not the same as declaring Mary Magdalene a prostitute. In many medieval accounts, she is described as a promiscuous, wealthy woman, though not necessarily one who took money for sex. But that perception passed into Catholic teaching and lore.

So as the BBC says: “Put all the evidence together and it is easy to conclude that Mary has been the victim of 1,400 years’ worth of character assassination.”

But as Philip Jenkins says that doesn’t quite ring true:

Even with her sordid back-story, Mary Magdalene simply was not airbrushed out of the church’s history. She continued to be highly venerated in medieval times and afterwards, one of the most beloved popular saints. Both Oxford and Cambridge universities commemorate her with their ancient and very prestigious Magdalene Colleges. Still in the fifteenth century, the English translation of the vastly influential GoldenLegend exalts Mary as she “to whom Jesus Christ appeared first after his resurrection, and was fellow to the apostles, and made [by] our Lord apostolesse of the apostles.” That hardly sounds like someone being written out of history, or indeed slandered.

And yes, over five hundred years ago, the English language had a feminine form of “apostle.”

Interestingly is the timing of the Magdalene narratives. Jenkins again:

The early church told of a Resurrection appearance to Peter and then the whole body of disciples. Although there might have been early tales concerning the faithful women, this element became much more prominent over time, until eventually one heroine took center stage as key witness to resurrection, and that was Mary Magdalene.

But wait a moment…

We can easily imagine an institution reinventing its origins to cover up embarrassing elements. But has any religion ever deliberately gone out of its way to make its beginnings less rather than more plausible?

All of this simply serves to say that the history of Mary Magdalene is not nearly so clear-cut even though she has been given a pretty raw deal for a good thousand years or so as well as being a convenient figure to stash in several conspiracy theories about Jesus. But enough of that, what about the film itself?

Faith films often receive a mixed set of reviews from secular reviewers – partly because they’re often not very good and partly because of the content. Mary Magdalene has received the usual mixed slate of reviews but I was interested to read how it divided two Christian reviewers in Amy Plender and Matt Hosier.

On the film

Amy: “It is not a perfect film, but it is nearly perfect.”
Matt: “This movie is so terrible, so extraordinarily bad…by every other measure, this is just plain and simple awful.”

On Joaquin Phoenix’s Jesus

Amy: “Phoenix beautifully captures Jesus’ magnetism on a personal level – I felt as drawn to him as Mary seems, in the same untranslatable, not–romantic–but–still–smitten attraction.”
Matt: “Phoenix’s attempt resembles more an angst-ridden Timothy Leary, spouting New Age sounding musings, meets Leonardo Di Caprio in The Revenant, than the kind of Jesus portrayed in the gospels.”

On Mara Rooney’s Mary

Amy: “Fittingly, for a film telling its story from Mary’s view point, for much of the time the frame centres on her face and gaze. Mara’s acting is mesmeric, the light glancing off the planes of her face, simultaneously sharp and smooth, like the undulating landscape they journey through.”
Matt: “Because more than a window into Mary’s soul, these shots convey perfect hair and perfect makeup: my disbelief struggled to be suspended about this when Mary is meant to be an oppressed Judean peasant. Why not have Mary look like an oppressed Judean peasant if that is what she was? This problem is compounded by the way in which Mara’s accent slips about half an hour into the movie, from kinda-Israeli to natural American. At the least, that is distracting.”

In conclusion

Amy: “The acting of the whole cast, naturalistic, nuanced, gritty, is successfully heart wrenching, the cinematography transfixing.”
Matt: “In terms of story-telling, character portrayal, and artistic believability I was left wishing I’d gone into another theatre and watched Peter Rabbit.”

Make of all that what you will.

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