FILM REVIEW – MARY MAGDALENE. With Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim, Tcheky Karyo. Written by Helen Edmunson and Phillipa Goslett. Directed by Garth Davis. Rated R for some bloody and disturbing images. 120 minutes.
They say it was Pope Gregory back in the year 591 who first got it wrong, apparently mixing up some of the Marys in a couple of Gospels and decreeing that Jesus’ apostle Magdalene, so famously and frequently pictured at the foot of the cross, was in fact a fallen woman. Oops. Now granted, without his misinterpretation we never would have gotten Barbara Hershey in “The Last Temptation of Christ” or all those great Yvonne Elliman songs in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” but baselessly being called a whore for over 1,400 years and having a string of human rights-abusing laundry sweatshops named after you has still gotta sting a little bit. In characteristically speedy fashion, the Vatican finally got around to setting the record straight in 2016.
So that’s the impetus for MARY MAGDALENE, an exceptionally tedious new film intending to rehabilitate the reputation of its namesake with the help of movie star Rooney Mara in the title role and a Jesus of Nazareth played by her real-life boyfriend Joaquin Phoenix. The picture tries to put a feminist bent on the Greatest Story Ever Told, and when all is said and done the only sin Mary Magdalene could possibly be accused of now is being unbelievably boring.
Shot in 2016 only to be shelved when The Weinstein Company collapsed, the film was released in Europe last year and is finally headed to VOD here on Good Friday, presumably to stir up sales from any Christian audiences who won’t be put off by what strikes this critic as an undeserved R rating. (Okay, the crucifixion gets a bit bloody, but this is hardly a Mel Gibson fetish film.)
As reimagined by screenwriters Helen Edmunson and Phillipa Goslett, Mary of Magdala was the first feminist – but not a scary or strident feminist, just a safe, calmly self-assured one like you see in Disney cartoons these days — refusing to submit to the marriage her family arranged for her and bringing scandal upon them all by going out alone at night to pray. With her porcelain features and unblinking stare, Rooney Mara possesses an opaque quality that in the hands of the right filmmakers can conjure a captivating aura of mystery. Or she can just be dull.
Director Garth Davis goes for the latter here, eliciting a performance as drab as the movie’s barren landscapes, threadbare costumes and undressed sets. It’s a flat-lined, flat-looking picture. Nobody shows much of a personality until Jesus comes along, and that dude just seems like he’s out of his damn mind.
I must admit I’d assumed I was long past the age of seeing a movie Jesus played by someone older than me, but casting a beefy, middle-aged guy with grey in his beard is what folks might generously call “a choice.” Joaquin Phoenix is certainly one of the most exciting actors working today, but all that twitchy, restless abandon that makes him so riveting to watch in films like “The Master” or “You Were Never Really Here” ain’t exactly beatific. His bug-eyed Jesus basically runs around shouting at people like a crazy person on the subway.
“Mary Magdalene” is a curiously enervated movie, sleepwalking through the stations of the cross with the same let’s-get-this-over-with-already” energy that reminded me of going to Mass on one of those hot, hungover Sunday mornings when not even the priest can feign interest in being there. Mary’s new place in the proceedings hasn’t been thought through very thoroughly, so she’s left kinda just standing around on the sidelines for a lot of the big scenes.
Not even Chiwetel Ejiofor can do anything with the barely-written role of Peter. But the one performance in the film I did quite enjoy was from Tahir Rahim, the Algerian actor who made such an impression in Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” and played FBI agent Ali Soufan in the excellent TV adaptation of “The Looming Tower.” He plays Judas Iscariot as an overly excitable young activist who misreads the room, betraying his rabbi as a political ploy that backfires badly. It’s the one interesting angle in a movie that’s otherwise inert.
Save for a weirdly hot baptism scene in which Phoenix and Mara inexplicably end up eye-fucking the entire time, there’s otherwise none of the yearning or sexual frissons that defined previous movie relationships between Jesus and Magdalene. Mara’s Mary is never in any danger of singing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” but another of Elliman’s songs from “Superstar” came to mind more than once: “Could We Start Again, Please?”•••
Over the past twenty years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.