Something about Mary Magdalene beyond film controversies

PUBLISHED: 12:14 15 March 2018 | UPDATED: 08:55 16 March 2018

Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene. Photo: Universal Pictures

Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene. Photo: Universal Pictures


Efforts to portay the enigmatic and misunderstood Mary Magdalene on the big screen have often proved controversial. Now a new take on the life of the apostle aims to turn sparse factual history into a story of faith and heroism.

Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus Christ and Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene. Photo: Universal PicturesJoaquin Phoenix as Jesus Christ and Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene. Photo: Universal Pictures

Mary Magdalene is one of the most enigmatic and misunderstood spiritual figures in history.

Sometimes called simply the Magdalene, she was a Jewish woman who, according to texts included in the New Testament, travelled with Jesus as one of his followers.

She is also said to have witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Within the four Gospels she is named at least 12 times, more than most of the apostles.

Mary is present for the crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection. Being the first person to witness the absence of Jesus’s body in his tomb, Mary is coveted as one of the most important women in the Bible.

It’s a widely debated topic whether Mary had a romantic relationship with Jesus. Although, many other theories about her life have come into question over the years.

The mystery of just who she was and what was her relationship with Jesus has proved to be a controversial problem in Biblical screen depictions.

Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene. Photo: Universal PicturesRooney Mara as Mary Magdalene. Photo: Universal Pictures

Jesus of Nazareth, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Passion of the Christ are just some of the films that have depicted Mary Magdalene as a fallen woman redeemed by the Son of God.

This weekend a new film arrives in cinemas that sets out to refute the commonly held assumption that she was a prostitute redemmed when she meets Jesus, a claim that can be traced back to Pope Gregory I, who declared her to be a penitent prostitute in the year 591.

The Catholic Church “cleared” Mary’s name in 1969, while Pope Francis formally identified her as the “apostle of the apostles” in 2016.

Mary Magdalene, directed by Garth Davis and starring Rooney Mara as Mary, alongside Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus, takes on a protagonist that has sparse factual history but attempts to present what we do know about her as a coherent and compelling story of faith and heroism.

Both the director and star are well aware of how controversial the subject matter has proved to be in the past, but felt it “an important story to tell”.

“It was a huge undertaking. A scary thing to take on,” said Rooney Mara. “In the beginning I was a little bit reticent about taking it on.

“I wasn’t really sure I wanted to make a film about religion. I went to Catholic school and it just seemed daunting to me. But the more I spoke with Garth and the more I read and the more I learned, I knew it was an important story to tell and something I wanted to be a part of.”

Barbara Hershey played Mary Magdalene in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ, which infamously included an imagined scene of her and Jesus, played by Willem Dafoe, making love and having a baby together.

The scene is revealed to be a dream sequence as Jesus, on the cross, briefly ponders a normal life as a mortal, but it was enough for the 1988 film, adapted from a 1955 novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis, rather than Biblical accounts, to hugely controversial.

In some countries, including Greece, Turkey, Mexico, Chile, and Argentina, the film was banned or censored. In the US there were protests outside cinemas, while evangelist Bill Bright offered to buy the film’s negative from the studio in order to destroy it. Mother Teresa even condemned it.

In Mel Gibson’s Passion Of The Christ a largely silent Monica Bellucci plays Mary Magdalene, while Anne Bancroft portrayed her in the 1977 mega TV production Jesus Of Nazareth.

Mary was also at the heart of Dan Brown’s global bestselling The Da Vinci Code as well as the Tom Hanks-starring film adaptation.

Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus Christ in Mary Magdalene. Photo: Universal PicturesJoaquin Phoenix as Jesus Christ in Mary Magdalene. Photo: Universal Pictures

The new film sets to be an authentic and humanistic portrait. The biblical biopic tells her story as a young woman in search of a new way of living. Constricted by the hierarchies of the day, she defies her traditional family to join a new social movement led by the charismatic Jesus of Nazareth. She soon finds a place for herself within the movement and at the heart of a journey that will lead to Jerusalem.

“I am not a religious expert, and I’m not necessarily religious either, but the thing that we connected to is the spiritual message,” says Garth Davis on why he chose to risk potentially controversial subject matter. “In some ways that is the message that has been lost today. The whole point is that we are taking people back to the core message of Jesus that we all have it in us. I just had to trust that. I loved the inclusiveness of Mary and telling the story through her point of view.”

Rooney Mara adds: “We are seeing Jesus’s life through her eyes and through her experience. There has never been a film about Mary Magdalene and that is quite different from anything we’ve seen before.”

• Mary Magdalene is in cinemas from March 16

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