Vision: Mary Magdaline
The recent release of this movie has not had much fanfare, and perhaps it should have had more. It is the first major motion picture portrayal of Mary Magdalene as someone other than a prostitute. This in itself is a milestone, in keeping with the new official teaching of the Catholic church. Pope Gregory I (AD 540–604) preached the position that Mary was a prostitute by confusing and conflating her with the figures of the ‘sinful woman’ of Luke 7:36–50, and with Mary of Bethany’s anointing in Matt 26:6–13 (and parallels). Nearly 1500 years later, Francis has now declared that she was instead an “apostle of the apostles,” the “first witness who saw the risen Christ, and the first messenger who announced the Lord’s resurrection.”
This general position is reflected in the plot of the movie. Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a young woman in the fishing village of Magdala, Galilee, helping with the family fishing business. The movie opens with her aiding her sister with a difficult birthing, being a caring and central part of her extended family. However, this is a patriarchal society, and she has a marriage arranged for her against her wishes. When she rebels against this, her family subjects her to an exorcism ritual in the Galilee that is effectively more like a near-drowning. This leaves her almost catatonic, and it is only the arrival of the healer Jesus that draws her out of herself.
Mary becomes (platonically) attracted to Jesus and decides to join him (and his disciples) on the road. She encourages Jesus in new directions, for example, to preach to women and baptise them. She is sent with Simon Peter on a mercy mission to Samaria. She is witness to the unfolding drama of Jesus’ confrontations at Passover in Jerusalem. When these lead inexorably to the crucifixion, she stays at the foot of the cross for his final moments. Weeping at his tomb, she wakes to see the risen Jesus and then struggles to convince the other apostles of his resurrection and the true meaning of the Kingdom of God.
Given the paucity of information about Mary Magdalene in the biblical record, and given that the movie is setting out to correct an erroneous historical narrative about her (i.e. being a prostitute), one might expect that this movie would take the few snippets of information about her from the Gospels, use those as a basis, and then use imagination to create the rest of a plausible narrative. Garth Davis instead, though, has produced a movie that will be extremely frustrating for those who like their biblical and historical details accurate.
These inaccuracies include the following. In the movie, Mary is not actually exorcised of any demons by Jesus (contra Luke 8:2). Also, the British-Nigerian Chiwetel Ejiofor is a strange choice in ethnicity for the Galilean-Jewish Simon Peter. A number of the twelve disciples are greybeards when the likelihood is that they were men in their 20s and 30s. The portrayal of Judas is remarkably positive and includes none of the theft and deception that are generally seen as fundamental to his character (John 12:4–6; 13:21–30). The one I found the most disappointing was Jesus’ tomb, which is set not in a garden but on a desolate hillside. This not only contradicts the account of Mary thinking Jesus was the gardener in John 20:15 but nullifies the rather lovely contrast made in Apostolorum Apostola between Eve, whose actions bring death (“the woman present in the garden of paradise”) and Mary Magdalene, whose actions announce life (“the woman present in the garden of the resurrection”).
Having said this, while the movie would not be a good basis for a Gospels Bible quiz, the spirit of the movie still seems appropriate, and a number of scenes that take a more “thematic” approach are both interesting and thought-provoking.
First, the realities of being called as one of Jesus’ disciples are portrayed in visually stunning ways throughout the movie. Davis uses the southern Italian rock-strewn mountains to dwarf his characters, often pulling back in aerial long shots to have them crawling like ants across hill-passes, small and alone in their ministry. As an audience, we experience the disciples having to hold back crowds from Jesus when he is healing, having to sleep rough on a blanket in the open-air, and constantly having to guess about what Jesus’ real intentions are. In Mary’s case, we see her leaving family and losing her reputation. Peter leaves behind a much-loved child. These sacrifices have not been dwelt on much in biblical movies before, and this is a refreshing and challenging change.
Secondly, Jesus’ message in Magdala, Cana, and ultimately in the temple in Jerusalem is one that cuts to the heart of the gospel message – that lives need to change. His confrontation with the priests at the temple is a good example of this: “… does God demand that this [sacrificial system] is how the people should show their true repentance? A flick of a knife on your altar, a psalm to recite on their way out? Have their hearts been altered when they leave this place?” This exchange is interspersed with images of blood-drenched aprons, sacrificial animals being manhandled, and a flash-forward to Jesus’ own bloodied and pierced hands on the cross. It is a subtle and powerful visual depiction of Jesus’ message, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15).
Thirdly, Mary’s care for others is highlighted throughout the movie with eye contact, compassionate suffering-alongside and the words, “look at me … I’m here”, accompanied by the kind of soulful stare that only Rooney Mara can pull off. We see this caring as Mary helps her sister with her excruciating birth-pains. We see it again as she helps a dying Samaritan woman find peace as the woman gasps her last breaths. And ultimately, we have a silent interchange between her and Jesus on the cross. Mary’s character models a giving and a loving presence in extreme circumstances, the taking on of pain and the giving of solace in return, no matter what the cost. It is utterly gospel.
Overall, Mary Magdalene gives the thoughtful viewer much to chew on – Robbie Collins in The Telegraph review aptly says of it “[it] neither breaks your heart nor grabs your throat … it is a brow-furrower and a temple-rubber, best mulled over at a remove.” Not least are the implications of the legacy of this woman of faith – if she is an “apostle of the apostles” then, as Time argues, why does the Catholic Church still quibble about women priests? The argument could also be made more widely: why are there still questions about whether women can preach, if Mary was given the greatest message in history to give to the apostles, as Apostolorum Apostola argues? Food for thought indeed. In the meantime, in Mary’s words, look at her, she’s here.
Ian Waddington has lectured at Laidlaw College for 16 years, mainly in the areas of Bible and Theology. He is a fan of the Gospel of Mark, discipleship, preaching, coffee with his wife, pizza with his boys, and movies.
 This may have been due to the release in New Zealand (in March 2018) being done by the embattled The Weinstein Company, of Harvey Weinstein fame.
 Pope Francis, “Apostle of the Apostles Apostolorum Apostola, 3 June 2016), http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccdds/documents/articolo-roche-maddalena_en.pdf.
 This is possibly to provide racial diversity in an industry struggling with charges of “whitewashing,” i.e. casting white actors for ethnically diverse parts. Ironically, in this case the charge of whitewashing has still been laid at Mary Magdalene’s door – Katie Edwards, “Mary Magdalene is yet another example of Hollywood whitewashing,” https://theconversation.com/mary-magdalene-is-yet-another-example-of-hollywood-whitewashing-94134.
 See for example “How old were Jesus’ disciples?” https://www.gotquestions.org/how-old-were-Jesus-disciples.html.
 Apostolorum Apostola, § 5.
 Robbie Collins, “Mary Magdalene Review: the Bible’s Fallen Woman Takes the Lead in a Chic, Thought-Provoking Retelling,” https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/0/mary-magdalene-review-bibles-fallen-woman-takes-lead-chic-thought/.
 Flora Carr, “The Real Reason Why Mary Magdalene Is Such a Controversial Figure,” http://time.com/5210705/mary-magdalene-controversial/.
 Apostolorum Apostola, § 7.