With mainstream films about Jesus, there's usually a fault line to contend with, between faith and secular interpretations: do you treat Jesus as a secular, historical figure, or the Son of God? Do you show the miracles as real? Or go for ambiguity, showing just enough for an open interpretation to satisfy different audiences? These are no small questions, of course: the legitimacy of Christ for most, if not all Christians (and indeed, Muslims), is that he possessed powers that were beyond human – proof that he was sent by God. Anything less than this, and you miss the point of Jesus. Equally, though, for the non-Christian (majority?) audience, to keep the miracles is arguably to make Jesus a figure you can't believe in or relate to, historically. Perhaps most significantly from a character and story-telling point of view, Jesus is a symbol of purity and goodness. How can one relate to someone who is perfection, in terms of narrative arc?
It's a balancing act that the film Mary Magdalene pulls off impressively, nevertheless. Set on the rugged coastline of Judea, and later the labyrinthine shadows of Jerusalem, the locations feel beautifully authentic. An excellent cast, meanwhile, with Rooney Mara on top form as Mary of Magdala, elicits both sympathy and fascination. Mara's central performance is credible as the enigmatic single woman unable to countenance an arranged marriage and family life while other, spiritual issues plague her. With overtones of a witch trial, Mary is even dragged into a ritual of exorcism that nearly kills her. This proves to be the tipping point, while around her people talk about a healer known as Jesus. Eventually, they meet and share a conversation. From that point for Mary, there is no going back, or indeed, staying still in her community.
Mary's central presence, her journey from curiosity to commitment and ultimate enlightenment, means we get to see Jesus but not in depth. This is not a film that focuses on the different sides of Christ as done before, e.g. the torture endured (Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ ), or Christ's human side (Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, ). Nor does the film explore the existence of God, at least to the degree taken by Silence (2016). Instead, this is Christ played by Joaquin Phoenix as a likeable, well-meaning figure whose impact is measured and debated by those around him. Peter (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) expects Jesus to rid Judea of Roman occupation; Judas (brilliantly played by Tahar Rahim) wants Jesus to signal Judgement Day so he can see his dead wife and child again. It is Mary, however, who begins to understand that the message of Jesus won't change the external surroundings, but rather the internal, thereby making everyone responsible for their own salvation, and their surroundings. A recurring image is of Mary floating in the ocean, repeating the words of Christ about transcendence: of becoming like the mustard seed, growing while nurturing life around you. Mary's journey draws you into her desire for spiritual enlightenment; concurrently, the miracles that appear in the first half of the film give way in the second to the limitations and struggle for understanding of the disciples, as if Christ has set in motion this next part: over to you. My job is done.
Overall, this is a portrayal of Jesus Christ that works for different audiences, religious or otherwise. Of course, the centrality of a female figure, historically marginalized but triumphantly liberated here, adds to the film's value. Rooney Mara, as gifted and charismatic an actress as exists in Hollywood, can sometimes overplay the doe-eyed ingénue. But not here: this is a role she seizes with passion and intelligence, bringing to life a hugely significant, historical figure of which we've known too little, for far too long. The fact that this film has the potential to contribute to this change says much about its quality.