Mary Magdalene - Review

Wasting Rooney Mara should be a criminal offense.


Adding to the story of Jesus is a tempting pursuit. The idea of missing context, a lost link to understanding can be riveting, and has been explored successfully before: The Passion of the Christ, The Last Temptation of Christ; Life of Brian, the story of Jesus has been told in many genres, both realistic and farcical. Mary Magdalene aims for authenticity with minimal sets and avoidance of Jesus’s most god-like moments, in favor of an intimate and emotional account of the misjudged Mary of Magdala. While an enlightening supplement to Christian texts and knowledge of Jesus’s life, the film substitutes the lack of drama with long, drawn-out periods of silence, making for a slow and unsatisfying slog.

This would be alright if Mary (Rooney Mara) had time to develop as a character, but interest in the character will depend entirely on the audience’s prior knowledge. In the film, Mary is given 20 or so minutes of background, seen in her oppressive 1st century family, which values the traditional roles of women above their independence. A horrific drowning sequence wisely establishes stakes, drama; something for Mary to be afraid of as she purses Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) and his followers, but after the 20 or so minutes of background, her conservative family disappears. The plot switches tracks and follows the last weeks of Jesus’s life, hitting several major beats that have been told and re-told too many times to count. Throughout this Mary is posed as a strong and silent listener, a wise adviser to Jesus surrounded by opinionated and loud-mouthed males. While Rooney Mara is no stranger to the type, her role as Mary is restricted almost entirely to longing stares and blank-faced expression. In moments of intrigue, such as Jesus’s tirade at the Judean Temple, she is in the crowd, looking at him, but regardless of her presence in key moments, nothing changes or occurs because of her. That makes for a boring film.

One of the most tiring things to watch is a character that goes nowhere. Mary Magdalene suffers heavily from being upstaged, both by Jesus and his followers: Joaquin Phoenix is as watchable as ever, sporting the scraggly look he donned for his faux I’m Still Here documentary, and Peter, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is an engaging though unimaginative look at the most famous apostle. The film poses Magdalene as the namesake of the story, as a secret driver of events in the most famous Christian’s life, but she is overshadowed by the far-more dynamic male characters. Rather than a look through her eyes, Mary Magdalene is the story of Jesus from the outside. Through stares and pointless conversations that reveal more about the others than Mary, the film stumbles in who to focus on, and ends up regurgitating a bland version of the story it is trying to subvert.