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Mary Magdalene

March 23, 2018

MMagSomewhat confusing, this film is very good and very awful in equal measure. Who’s going to watch it? There were four of us in a large cinema.

So what is this ‘kingdom’? Is it justice, freedom from oppression as Judas and Peter thing and as liberation theologians expound? Or is it the inner freedom proclaimed by Mary in the film? Ironically, the Church condemned her but also the ‘political’ gospel.

The women of Jerusalem morph into the women at the foot of the cross. The corpus n the cross writhes in a suffocating manner – the film-makers have obviously read about this.

Pebbles, rather than a large rock, seal the tomb – surely they’d blow away.

The ‘make way’ on Palm Sunday, sans donkey seemed like a quotation from Kendrick rather than from scripture.

The premonition, as the sacrificial lambs were being admiited, to the crucifixion was clever.

Judas was portrayed sympathetically.

Mary Magdalene is shown baptizing women, using a strange formula about being “baptized into the Light.”

They got the Hebrew right.

It’s slow and meditative – a car chase might have livened things up!

As the film’s written coda explains, Mary Magdalene has long been misidentified as a prostitute. Garth Davis’s attractive, unsmiling drama sets out to revise this myth, telling a version of the New Testament that attempts to make the female saint the story’s protagonist. When Rooney Mara’s Mary flees an arranged marriage, her orthodox community insist on exorcising the “demon” that has taken up residence in her body. But there is no demon, she insists, just “my thought, my fear, my longing, my unhappiness”.

The film tells the story of Mary, a young woman in search of a new way of living. Constricted by tradition, Mary defies her 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.

The non-Christian filmmakers discern the radical love at its heart with outsiders’ clarity. “Rooney and I are not necessarily religious in any way,” Davis confirms. “But what we connected to was the spiritual message…[of Jesus] that’s been lost.” Davis didn’t intend a film only for Christians. “We want to bring this incredible story to everyone.”

This is a film where Judas’s betrayal with a kiss is tragic and “tender” for Goslett. And in its bravest, most divisive scene, taken from the heavily disputed Gospel of Mary, she comes direct from the resurrected Christ with his message that the Kingdom he’s promised is within, only for Peter to scornfully lead the male disciples, and the future church, on a divergent, more dominating path

“The underwater imagery is basically a metaphor for her spiritual calling,” he says. “It’s a visualisation of that place we go to when we question who we are and what we’re connected to. So at times it can be scary and at times it can be joyous. It’s a tumultuou­s emotional metaphor. It’s having the courage to surrender.”

Mara went to a Catholic school, and had a passing awareness of Mary Magdalene: “I had known her to be a prostitute who Jesus sort of saved and she became one of his followers, but I obviously didn’t know anything about her. I don’t think I ever thought about her that much.”

Intrigued as she was by this new perspective, she still had reservations about taking the role. “I was so hesitant to become involved, to be honest, even after reading it and finding all that out, because of the religious content of the film. It was really Garth. I had just worked with him on Lion, and I wanted to work with him again, and the way he spoke about the film he wanted to make really resonated with me, that was what pushed me into it.”

Her reservations, she says, had to be put aside. “Coming from a religious background myself, I didn’t feel like revisiting all that baggage. But it was great to put all my own baggage aside and get to relearn all of this stuff as an adult, that was really interesting.”

The figure Mara plays in the film is an outsider, but for very specific reasons, she says. “She’s a very tactile person, tapped into other people and the way that they’re feeling. I defin­itely think she’s an empath and that gives her this ability to connect with people in a way that might be different from a lot of other people during that time.”

It is Mary talking to Judas, for example, who reveals his misconceptions and weak points, the reasons why he might see the betrayal of Jesus as a necessary act. Judas tells her what he expects from the figure for whom he has given up everything. Mary’s insights allow her to understand and forgive. For Davis, “her relationship with Judas is a great way for the audience to fully realise unconditional love”.

Mara says it makes sense to her that Mary would elicit things from Judas that the other ­followers could not. “I think women have — and probably especially so during that time, ­because they were so marginalised — a stronger sense of empathy and compassion and understanding.”

When Davis first read the screenplay, he had certain preconceptions, chiefly cinematic, about the figure of Mary Magdalene. “In movies I’d seen her portrayed as the prostitute, the fallen woman. So when I read it, this was a completely different conversation and I couldn’t believe her story hadn’t been told.”

Mary Magdalene (Mary from Magdala) appears­ in the gospels of the New Testament a dozen times. She followed Jesus from Galilee; she is present at the crucifixion; and she is the first to witness the resurrection. There are other apocryphal gospels — including a Gospel of Mary, written in the early second century — that develop her story. She was considered an apostle, and is a saint. Yet in a homily by Pope Gregory in 591 she is spoken of as a prostitute: this, it is believed, is an important source for Mary Magdalene as an emblem of repentance.

The screenplay, Davis says, “made sense to me. These people were relatable, there was a spirituality in them, it was inclusive, it was human … I really felt for Mary and her struggle to follow her calling.”

The Mary Magdalene of Davis’s film is ­considered by those close to her to be dangerous, even possessed. Her family members are alarmed by the way she expresses spiritual longings and by her unwillingness to embrace a trad­itional female role.

We also see her, early in the film, as a midwife and a healer. Mary knows her capacities but the people around her do not, Davis says. “Mary is already in contact with her spirituality, she already is a child of light, as Jesus would say. But this is not allowed to be expressed and fully realised. When she meets Jesus, it’s the first time someone acknowledges who she is and acknowledge­s that what she has is divine and right and she’s not demonic, she’s not possessed­.”

The film’s restraint, Davis says, is essential to its vision. “The message of the movie really is that God is within us, and that we have to embrace­ our own unconditional love and the spirituality that is in us, so in some ways I had to create that feeling in the making of the movie. And in the silences.

“Jesus talks about the silences. That’s where truth is, being in the moment. In some ways, I had to go against traditional drama and bring people into those silences.”

It was an approach, Davis says, that was congenial­ to Phoenix, who threw himself into research and exploration. “He did a lot of reading, he has a strong spirituality himself and he’s actually incredibly connected to this concept of unconditional love.”

They found influences in common, he says. “One of the inspirations I had, which Joaquin also serendipitously had, was Martin Luther King’s final speech.” King’s words, Davis says, suggest an awareness of impending death. “There’s a moment in that speech where you can see that he has to leave this earth, and he’s telling everybody that they need to continue the fight, and there was something so beautifully real about that.

At the same time, Davis says, Phoenix was also committed to a natural way of speaking, to creating a figure who was responsive to those around him. “One of the things he was keen on was to not make it seem like Jesus was reading parables but to try to find a way he would have spoken to people, to try to find that energy and language and how that conversation would be inspired by the people around him, how he’d build on something.”

“But the thing that probably moved me the most was the healing sequences. You can’t ‘act’ that stuff, it just doesn’t work.”

For these scenes, Davis says, he didn’t bring in actors to play the roles of the sick and the dying — what he looked for was “people who are self-contained”.

“I would literally bring in people, he wouldn’t know who was coming, and he’d just be in character. Joaquin has a magical ability to ­empathise with people, he almost sees into your soul and I think people are really drawn in and open up. There were incredible scenes where he would discover the people in front of him, there was a tactility and love that was just quite extraordinary.”

Preparing to make the film, Davis says, he had to do a good deal of research. “I wanted to make sure I’m not offending anyone. I’m not a religious person and I had to do a lot of catch-up.” He trusted the script, he says. “The writers had spent four years invested in the process, ­already a strong dialogue with experts in the field. It was written from a really respectful place. But I had to go through that myself too.

“We had to have lots of research and people from different religious backgrounds supporting us: experts on first-century history, theolog­ians. We needed great advice.”

His cast members were also encouraged to make use of this: “Actors have a lot of questions, we give them access to these people too.”

There was a need, he says, to try to create­ a plausible, authentic world of the everyday. “That’s what I have to bring to life. How do they eat? How do they live? How do they sleep?” He wanted the cast to be aware of this. “We had a huge amount of visual material as well, especially in the art department, and I always­ encouraged actors to go to the art depart­ment and walk through the rooms and interact with props. We did rehearsal with props too. It’s all about getting out of a modern headspace.”

Mary Magdalene was filmed in southern Italy and Sicily. Davis, Mara and Phoenix went to ­Israel shortly before shooting began, to see the biblical locations for themselves. “Garth thought, and I thought, it was important to visit some of those places in the flesh and get a feeling for them,” Mara says. “And it was great, it was amazing to go there” — particularly, she says, to Magdala, where Mary came from.

Yet filming in Italy, she says, had a feeling of authenticity: “That makes such a difference, you can feel how ancient it is.”

For Davis, “It was amazing when we came to Italy how similar it was to images and references I had. I’m not a fan of big CGI worlds, and even sets I struggle with. So I tried to find existing architecture that we could either augment simply or have the actors around — because I really believe in getting the actors into a real world and connect to their characters.”

The landscape is an important part of the film’s identity, he says. “I just think that in a lot of religious dialogues we forget nature, we ­forget our connection to nature. Nature would have been a very big part of their lives back then. And I think that when you’re in nature, you question who you are and what you belong to, so for me it was a very important element in creating that emotional experience and that spiritual questioning.”

“What I find really interesting,” says Edmundson’s co-writer Philippa Goslett, “is that since 1969, when the Catholic church formally separates these women out, the idea of Jesus’s bloodline has been prevalent. If Mary Magdalene’s not a prostitute, she must have been his lover. I hope that this film goes some way to restoring her spiritual authority, which is there within the Gospels, and has been so denigrated over the centuries.”

Professor Helen Bond, Professor of Christian Origins says: This is a deeply moving and thought-provoking film. Drawing on a profound understanding of ancient gender divisions, Mary Magdalene presents a revolutionary yet compelling portrait of the role and significance of Jesus’ closest female disciple. Intensely spiritual, compassionate, encouraging and level-headed, this is a Mary who will inspire Christian women everywhere.

The MU want us to know the right story (and there are discussion questions for groups) here

‘Every generation approaches their own retelling or re-imagining of stories based on the contemporary time,’ says producer Iain Canning.‘We felt that the female perspective of the life and death of Jesus was a new way in to that story and that it would also shine a light on contemporary issues.

Producer Emile Sherman adds, ‘Mary Magdalene had been marginalised for centuries and we wanted to restore her to her rightful place at the centre of the Jesus story, as a key apostle. Mary recognises that the ‘kingdom’, or whatever utopia we are striving for, needs to start within ourselves. This message is as revolutionary today as it has ever been.’

It was an unusual source that motivated Garth Davis, the award-winning director of Lion, to take up the reins on Mary Magdalene. ‘One of the big inspirations for me for this fi lm was Malala Yousafzai,’ he says. ‘There was something about her story that, for me, mirrored Mary’s story. The fact that she was shot in the face by the Taliban because she wanted to go to school, and then forgave the Taliban for their actions.

That act of forgiveness, that act of love, was something that was at the absolute heart of this film for me. When I read the script, I really thought of how she moved me and how Mary’s story is in her. I connect with that spirituality and that love.

MARY MAGDALENE is the latest in dozens of films giving this passionate disciple of Jesus a central role. As with many of its precursors, it doesn’t let biblical inaccuracy interfere with telling the story in its chosen way.

Thankfully here, Mary Magdalene isn’t the tart with a heart. No canonical Gospel claims this of her, and the film’s closing credits say this. Instead, this film identifies her (correctly) as a woman possessed of demons (Luke 8.2). A back story has her parents worry that this makes her unmarriageable, and an arranged exorcism is bungled.

She is seen as someone who ignores the patriarchal conventions for women.

This new film denotes Mary of Magdala as a woman for our time: a proto-feminist. Wasn’t she always so, in a sense? It is plain from the New Testament that the female disciples of Jesus considered his teaching to you must teach us different things?”

Jesus is to be good news for oppressed womankind. The film portrays him treating women with a respect that transgressed contemporary Hebrew attitudes; but it goes beyond the Gospels in portraying Mary Magdalene as someone who represents, in contrast with the men around her, intuitive understanding of Jesus. She probes Christ’s inner soul, eliciting a wry smile, and then: “No one [meaning men] has ever asked me how it feels before.” John Fenton’s book Finding the Way through Mark argued something similar.

The male disciples keep missing the point. We get spiritual torment mashed up with serenely posed close-ups of the pair discerning how beautiful the world would be if only human beings behaved. “In the silence, is there something calling? Do you have the courage to follow what you hear?” Jesus asks of Mary.

When the going gets tough, the apostles get going: only the women stand by their man; and it is to Mary Magdalene, not to his grief-stricken male followers, that the risen Lord first appears.

The film, which is often moving to watch, offers strong advocacy of the human need for a spiritual life, and one that not only Christians can assent to. Mary Magdalene’s clarion call is “I will be heard,” and she thus enthuses other women to spread the word with her. But the film never examines why, despite these early female disciples, over succeeding centuries Christian women’s voices often haven’t been.

“There are no demons here,” Jesus mildly tells Mary Magdalene. Her possession is all the New Testament tells us of its most infamous woman’s early life. Christ doesn’t exorcise her affliction, but lifts it like a loving psychiatrist. He sees no devils, only a woman misunderstood by her family.

The biblical Mary Magdalene only exists in five New Testament lines, which nevertheless make her a key female witness to Christ: among the disciples when he arrives in Jerusalem, watching his crucifixion then keeping watch over his tomb, the first person he meets on his resurrection, and his messenger of this marvel to the disciples.

“Everything else is conjecture,” says the film maker, who also consulted the non-biblical Gnostic Gospel of Mary in order to write a woman who’s more than just an observer. “We felt that if this Mary was strong enough to leave her home and everything she’d ever known with no going back, to join this group of men who had no idea of what their fate was going to be, then we could make her strong enough to point out to Jesus that if only men can be preached to and baptised, then that’s cutting out half the population. And to be a Mary who can actively baptise and minister in the same way men did. Those things felt fundamental.”

Its bravest, most divisive scene, taken from the heavily disputed Gospel of Mary, she comes direct from the resurrected Christ with his message that the Kingdom he’s promised is within, only for Peter to scornfully lead the male disciples, and the future church, on a divergent, more dominating path.


‘The world will only change as we change.’

Daniel: Mary, you’ve brought shame on our family. There’s something unnatural inside you.

Daniel: God made you to be a mother.
Mary Magdalene: I’m not made for that life.
Daniel: Then what were you made for?

Jesus: Your family says you gabble with the demon.
Mary Magdalene: If there’s a demon in me it’s always been there.
Jesus: There are no demons here.

[referring to Mary] Jesus: She will do God’s will.

Mary Magdalene: I didn’t know we were to be soldiers.

[referring to Mary] Judas: Why shouldn’t she follow him?
Peter: People will judge us.

Mary Magdalene: [to Peter] Are we so different from men you must teach us different things?

Jesus: Sometimes it’s as if I’m not here at all.
Mary Magdalene: Is that what it feels like to be one with God?
Jesus: No one has ever asked me how it feels?

Mary Magdalene: The women are too afraid to be baptized with the men.
Jesus: Go to them. Be my hands.

[referring to Jesus] Peter: [to Mary] It’s not right that he has raised you up to lead us.

Mary: You love my son, don’t you? You must prepare yourself like me.
Mary Magdalene: For what?
Mary: To lose him.

Jesus: God’s kingdom is not to be bought and sold!

Jesus’s Followers: We need to take him away from here.

Mary Magdalene: Whatever happens now it’s what God has asked of him.

Jesus: Mary, you are my witness.

Mary Magdalene: [to Jesus] I’ll be with you till the end.

Peter: Never speak again in his name.
Mary Magdalene: The world will only change as we change. I will not be silent. I will be heard.

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