Aussie director Garth Davis’ follow-up to his much-acclaimed feature début Lion is a whole different kettle of fish (and loaves?).
It is a ponderously feminist retelling of the supposedly true story of the ‘Apostle Of Apostles’ Mary Magdalene apparently without all the misogyny and lies that were added to the tale later.
Most notably, Davis and his screenwriters Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett make it clear that Mary wasn’t a whore (that was claimed in 591AD, and it well and truly stuck). Star Rooney Mara ensures that we understand that Mary followed Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) because of his charisma, the fabulous things he promised and the chance it gave her to get the hell away from her suffocating family.
She was quite a modern woman really which only makes this all the more irksome for the expected reasons: everyone looks way too clean, they endlessly pontificate in a variety of accents and it’s awfully hard nowadays to take any biblical movie seriously since Monty Python’s Life Of Brian.
Mara’s Mary is introduced pretentiously as she symbolically floats through the ocean’s depths. Then we get down to the business of her helping out as a midwife and getting a hard time if she talks back to her aggressive brother Daniel (Denis Ménochet) and wussy Dad (Tchéky Karyo).
The last straw is when they try to violently exorcise her of a demon and, afterwards, Jesus offers her some sympathy.
She finds herself drawn to him in scenes where you can plainly see that Rooney and Joaquin are swooning for each other (they started dating during the production) although this doesn’t dare go in any Last Temptation Of Christ-type direction.
Joining his ranks despite his followers’ qualms about her being a woman, Mary doesn’t quite win them all over despite Jesus’ best efforts with Joseph (Aussie Ryan Corr) looking disapproving, Judas (Tahar Rahim) looking snarky and Peter looking scornful (and he’s played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in a bit of casting that might upset traditionalists).
She’s with the group when Jesus starts healing the sick and creepy, horror-movie music plays (by Icelandic co-composer Jóhann Jóhannsson who died shortly after finishing his score) and later when JC raises a man from the dead, although this scene is weirdly spoiled by the fact that the revived guy looks rather more like a stereotype movie-Jesus than Joaquin does.
One of the sequences that should be the most stirringly revisionist has the gang going to Cana of Galilee (although this was mostly shot in assorted Italian locations) and Jesus preaching to an almost completely women-only crowd, members of whom complain of discrimination and double-standards and how this damages their faith.
He delivers another of his off-the-cuff speeches about love and forgiveness and the Kingdom Of Heaven and so forth, and they praise him, but, of course, they remain oppressed.
And isn’t it interesting that they all shout, “Messiah!”, in subtitled Aramaic, the only time non-English is used here?
You’d almost think that Davis and Co were afraid we’d all start laughing as we fondly recall Brian.
When we get to the betrayal, Judas’ kiss and the stuff that goes down in the Garden of Gethsemane, it’s all seen through Mary’s eyes so we’re spared much of the blood-soaked, sado-masochistic flagellating, scourging and guilt-tripping that made Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ such an excruciating experience.
Curiously, however, given the intense weight of the material and the fact that she should be considerably grungier and grimier, this features the overworked Mara actually smiling and looking happy which is quite a surprise given her trademark scowling and agonising everywhere else.
She’s quite divine, even though the rest of this one damn well isn’t.