Rooney Mara plays Mary Magdalene in the new film by Garth Davis ("Lion").

Rooney Mara plays Mary Magdalene in the new film by Garth Davis ("Lion").

“Mary Magdalene” is not your typical religious epic. In fact, I wouldn’t use the word “epic” to describe the sophomore film from “Lion” director Garth Davis. The story of one of the most mysterious and misunderstood women in history is a subdued retelling of the Christ story from the female perspective with Rooney Mara in the title role and chameleon actor Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus.

The film’s message is one of forgiveness although its mission is to dispel the misconceptions that Mary was a prostitute, a label passed down over the centuries thanks to Pope Gregory I who pronounced her a sinful woman in the year 591 despite the lack of biblical evidence. Davis’ re-imagining is an absorbing film that blends humanity and spirituality.

As women continue to make strides both in front and behind the camera, the timing is right to showcase another strong female who pushed the boundaries in what many believe to be the greatest story ever told. It would be a mistake to compare “Magdalene” to Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” or Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Davis isn’t concerned with theatrics, here the focus is on Mary who is always front and center.

At first, Mara’s performance may seem reticent as she wanders in and out of scenes, but you must remember that Mary must have been apprehensive as she refused to follow through with an arranged marriage, disappointing her father and husband-to-be. Women were secondary to men and by Mary refusing to follow her predestined path she was viewed as a rebel.

Word of a prophet named Jesus fills the land and when he arrives with his apostles in Magdala, a small fishing village along the Sea of Galilee, Mary drops what she’s doing to hear him speak. Overwhelmed by his message of forgiveness and a loving God who is building his kingdom, she begins neglecting chores for prayer, even going to the temple during the time set aside for men only. Her family believes she has become possessed and so they attempt an exorcism that is halted by Jesus, who knows that she has become saved by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Phoenix is perfect for the role of the Messiah as the actor falls in line with Davis’ less-is-more vision. When Jesus performs miracles, he does it in a gentle manner, the brush of his hand or whisper of his voice, not like some superhero whose power is being drained. In those scenes and others that include the arrival in Jerusalem, the trashing of the temple, and the crucifixion, Davis quickly returns to Mara keeping Mary in the film’s spotlight.

Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code” added to Mary’s mystique as the book and later film, suggested that she was romantically involved with Jesus, even speculating that they were married. In Da Vinci’s famous mural, The Last Supper, one of the apostles depicted appears to be a woman, many believe it is Mary Magdalene. In this film Davis doesn’t suggest that she was romantically involved with Jesus, but they were very close, and she is treated as one of the Apostles which causes a small rift as Peter (an excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor) seems threatened by her inclusion into the previous boys-only club.

In 2016 the Vatican issued a statement that enabled Mary Magdalene to be "celebrated" liturgically like the rest of the apostles. She was the first person Jesus appeared to after the resurrection, a scene that is played out in the film with disbelief as Peter becomes jealous that she was chosen over any of the Apostles who have been following the “Rabbi” for years.

Davis puts Mary on equal footing with the Apostles as the film’s strong feminist theme becomes a part of the narrative. Jesus was a proponent for women’s rights. In “Magdalene” he is seen welcoming Mary into the Apostles, baptizing women, and then in Jerusalem he speaks to a group of women washing clothes down by the river even suggesting that they disobey their husbands who try to stop them from following the word of the Lord. When the women become flustered Mary interjects thus calming the women. She becomes the first real Women’s Rights Activist preaching the word of God to other females in full-on Apostle mode.

“Mary Magdalene” was released over a year ago overseas but its release here in the US was held up by Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment scandal, ironic since the film advocates Women’s Rights. Without a distributor the film has been in limbo until IFC recently acquired the rights from TWC leading to its theatrical release this week and VOD premiere later this month.

Beautifully shot by Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser who worked on last year’s “Vice” and is now filming “Dune” for Denis Villeneuve, and featuring a stirring score by Hildur Gudnadottir and the late Johann Johannsson (his final work), “Mary Magdalene” approaches the subject matter with sensitivity at Terrence Malick speed giving the audience plenty of time to absorb Garth Davis’ eye-opening film.

(4 stars)

Now showing in Houston at Greenspoint Premiere Renaissance 15

Joe Friar is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society.  He co-founded the Victoria Film Society and reviews films for Hit Radio 104.7 and the Victoria Advocate.

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Joe Friar is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. He co-founded the Victoria Film Society and reviews films for Hit Radio 104.7 and the Victoria Advocate."

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