Critics have not been exactly gushing about the retake on Mary Magdalene, the new film in cinemas from this weekend. BBC Film 2018 described it as “thuddingly dull” and the Evening Standard made a play on the Oxbridge pronunciation of Magdalene as Maudlin, deciding it was somewhat introspective and banal. Having just seen it I’m not convinced those critics have completely understood it. It takes a slower pace, one which depicts the spaces between the action in the gospels. Where the gospels pile teaching upon miracle upon scene change, this film portrays cinematic journeys across vast expanses of rocky wilderness and grasslands. The pace is slower as befits first century life, where there are long moments of nothing much happening, of dark nights and journeys that take time. This is a film that shows what it means to travel slow, to have plenty of reflective space.
It also shows a Mary Magdalene who is not satisfied with the expectations and social conventions for a woman in first century Palestine – marriage and knowing her place. She is far too feisty for that, with spirit and intelligence. Where Mary challenges this she is regarded has being possessed by an evil spirit and in need of exorcism. A woman who challenges male power is assumed to have something wrong with her. The spiritual abuse that follows is distressing. When it fails, Jesus is brought in to make a house call but rather than conspire with the bullying he declares that there are no demons here. He sees her for who she is and the spiritual stirring within her. And this becomes a pivotal moment in the film as she joins his disciples as an equal, much to their surprise.
Mary Magdalene occupies the place of the disciple who actually gets what Jesus is about, where the others are looking for a revolutionary leader. For Mary, drawing on the Kingdom being like a mustard seed, it has to grow within each of us and we must let go of hatred. This is a different revolution, one which changes existentially and transforms the inner life. This Mary is much more of a nun than the prostitute later tradition turned her into and like most nuns she is not to be messed with, staring down a Roman soldier who backs off. She is accorded the place of honour at the Last Supper, with a nod to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and her place on Jesus’ right in the Da Vinci-esque seating plan. But there is no hint of a love child or sexual relationship between then.
There is feminist critique of a later male dominated church narrative. Mary is not demon possessed, she refuses her place as silent and subservient, she is given her role as ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ (an ancient title for her), as an Apostle in her own right. She challenges Peter with his assumptions about what Jesus was about, not being what he actually said. She displays mercy in a raw scene when she and Peter chance upon a village slaughtered by the Romans, and she cares for the dying. A midwife at birth in the opening is reflected in this midwiving death.
I was left wondering what someone who doesn’t know the story of Jesus, who isn’t familiar with the gospels, would make of the film. Would they follow it as well as someone who does? Will they be enticed to want to know more and there is a lot more to know? Who is this Jesus? Why does he appear and talk about the Kingdom? Is his teaching just about an internal, personal spiritual perspective? There are strange omissions from the final week – which seems to be condensed to just 24 hours. The Last Supper shows the breaking of bread with no reference to his body and there is no cup, so no reference to wine and blood. The resurrection is assumed after burial, but there is no shock at an empty tomb, no weeping Mary wondering where the body had been taken, no encounter “supposing him to be the gardener” – one of the tenderest passages in John’s gospel.
But Mary is redeemed from the centuries of slander as a prostitute, just an ordinary woman in a fishing village, who turns out to be extraordinary. The fallen woman image is a hybrid of other characters, and a corruption of the gospel stories. Mary stays with Jesus at the cross, where other disciples stay away. There is a rather preachy statement on screen at the end to this effect.
It is a film to be taken at a different pace to what we are used to and so it will probably not hit the mark for many. It needs to be viewed with a slower mood. Worth seeing, worth reflecting on, but it’s not the greatest film ever shown.