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Mary Magdalene review - whitewashed feminism doesn't deserve a round of applause

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A reframing of Jesus’ (Joaquin Phoenix) life story through the eyes of the forgotten apostle, Mary Magdalene (Rooney Mara), this film, while admirable in concept, is little more than dull in its execution.

While Mara and Phoenix deliver strong performances, their casting begs the question of what the point is of feminism that isn’t intersectional. The centring of a woman’s story in what has so long been a male-dominated narrative is an admirable aim, but whitewashing both Mary and Jesus utterly undermines it.

Surrounded by a more ethnically appropriate cast (Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Peter and Tahar Rahim’s Judas to name a few), a white Mary speaking out against the oppression of the brown women she groups herself with, and white Jesus showing them a new path leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

In the context of biblical films, this one stands out by telling what is now considered the truth about Mary — that she wasn’t a prostitute at all, and that this image of her was invented and perpetuated by Pope Gregory, and her gospel was purposefully excluded form the bible. This re-canonising and validation of her thoughts and experiences is profound in theory, but unfortunately that doesn’t mean it makes for a good film ... or a particularly feminist one.

The film chooses to tell its audience right at the end that the image most people have of Mary being a prostitute is in fact false. The result of this is the audience spending the entire film waiting for something linking Mary to prostitution - and it never comes. The very dichotomy of women in the bible being either holy virgins or whores is in fact utterly upheld rather than subverted by this film -- Mary is just shifted from one category to the other. It would have made for a far more valid feminist message to convey the fact that as a woman, as a prostitute, Mary is and always has been worthy of her place amongst Jesus' followers, and worthy of respect and admiration.

In the context, rather, of the current climate, cinema is increasingly full of films about white women achieving greatness in the face of oppressive systems: Molly’s Game, Lady Bird, and I, Tonya to name a few. The period setting and spiritual subject matter of Mary Magdalene result in a far less dynamic film that may struggle to compete. It also means we have to watch Mary be literally tortured by her oppressive, patriarchal family before being liberated by Jesus. This film falls into the trap of thinking that violence against women has to be explicitly portrayed on screen in order for its impact to be discussed.

Though the cast and director insist that one doesn’t have to be religious to enjoy the film, a lot does rest on believing in the faith that Jesus’ followers have in him. Phoenix is enigmatic and compelling as a “more human” messiah, and his chemistry with Mara is genuine, but he is rightfully never the focus of the film. Mary’s complex relationship with her own faith is perhaps the strongest draw for an audience in a world where balancing faith with other aspects of life is sometimes a challenge.

The ideological conflict between Mary and Peter’s interpretations of Jesus’ teachings, though they may be rooted in the bible, come across as terribly tone-deaf to a modern audience — especially considering the racial politics of the casting. The climax of the film comes as Peter’s frustration at the lack of direct action comes to a head. He cries out, “What about justice for the oppressed?”, which is met by Mary white-splaining to him that true peace and enlightenment lies within us, so his anger is unjustified. 

This reeks of tone-policing and painting the righteous anger of people of colour as an uncouth overreaction. The framing of Peter as a violent aggressor in contrast with Mary’s fragile, peace-loving innocence is pretty transparent too. 

The film is undeniably beautifully shot, and the locations are stunning. All the work that has gone into the research and the costume design and art direction certainly shouldn’t go unappreciated. It’s just a shame that the director’s casting choices let down the message of the film — not because Mara and Phoenix didn’t act well, but because of what they represent in the narrative. 

Mary Magdalene is in cinemas now, distributed by Universal Pictures. 

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