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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

My Honest Review: Mary Magdalene (2018) movie (and more!)

Dear Reader,

Happy Feast Day of St. Mary Magdalene!  Today the Catholic Church celebrates the "Apostle to the Apostles" and Christian Mystic, Mary Magdalene.  So naturally I felt it was a perfect time to finish the movie, staring Rooney Mara as the titular character, that I had started a few weeks ago.  Now don't let the fact that it took a few weeks to finish deter you - in my case, I wanted to prepare myself for the Passion of the Christ scenes that I knew were coming up, and with kids home, I couldn't really find the perfect time.

BUT before we dive into a full review, let me give a quick background of the actual Saint the movie is based on . . . right after you save this pin for future reference ;)

Bohemian Catholic My Honest Review St Mary Magdalene Movie

If you would just like the actual movie review, skip down to the first movie still image to pass over the background information
Now a LOT has been said about the Biblical character (or possible blend of characters woven together), as well as what Sacred Tradition tells us.  As both a Lay Dominican and as an Anchoress for the Seven Sisters Apostolate (both of which are under patronage of St. Mary Magdalene), I am very interested about this fascinating woman.

The most common Catholic viewpoint is that at some point after the Ascension (some give the year 42AD), Mary Magdalene (along with several other saints - though exactly who can vary) left the Holy Land via boat.  In some versions she and the others were forced (with the hopes they would drown at sea), in others, they left voluntarily.  Either way, managing to land on the shores of Southern France was deemed a miracle either way!

The church (Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume) as well as the town, have a rich history of stories surrounding the arrival of these holy people - and that once her friends were settled, Mary Magdalene became a hermit in the nearby mountains.  Her days were filled with prayer and contemplation, and sometimes visits from her friends.  In some stories, it is said angels came down from Heaven to keep her company.  She supposedly lived this way for thirty years, until she was told by an angel to go down the mountain to receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist.  A bishop who was given a similar vision, climbed up the mountain to meet her with the Blessed Sacrament.  Upon receiving the Body of Christ, her body gave out and her soul went to Heaven (there's even a statue that marks the supposed spot).

To read more about this church - please check out their site here.  And to read more about the Saint, please consider reading this book here (and here's an article with the author).  Happy researching :)

As for who the Saint was based on Biblical Evidence?  This is where it can get a bit trickier - both links shared believe that three women in the Bible: the repentant sinner who needed several demons cast out of her, the woman who anoints Jesus feet, and Martha and Lazarus' sister, are in fact all the same woman.  For sure, Mary Magdalene is named no less than 11 times, and was with Jesus during his Passion as one of the "weeping women", and she was allowed to see the risen Jesus at His tomb (and then become the Apostle to the Apostles).  Those things in and of itself show her importance, and her story should not be treated lightly.
With all that being said, now let's get to the movie!

The production of the movie took place in 2016, but unfortunately some post production distribution issues (unrelated to the film) pushed back its official release to 2018 - an in America it didn't get released till last year.  But having been hearing about for a solid three years, I was so excited to dive in - the cast was exceptional, and the trailer (in my opinion) displayed a charming, and holy friendship between Mary and Jesus. 

The most common review I stumbled across seemed to be an even divide between the audience members - half feeling it was not Biblical enough, while the other half felt it was "feminist propaganda" movie (oof).  So let's break this down a bit:
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD

Mary is a young woman whose mother passed away when she was young.  She has several brothers, and some sisters, and seems to be considered a lady of good standing in her community (and the emotional support for women in labor, and in distress on seemingly more than one occasion).  Her reputation seems to be high, and is linked to both her devoutness and her compassion.  I genuinely enjoyed the scenes of the Jewish community in prayer (though I unfortunately cannot vouch for accuracy).  Where things seem to go awash - is when Mary's father arranges a marriage and she basically runs to the temple not knowing what to do.  Her desire is to serve people, and be devoted to God, but as a Jewish woman in her time, there were limited options.  Her decision to deny the marriage convinces the brothers that she must be possessed by a demon.

She spends days in her home, seemingly half comatose, a disgrace now in her community.  At one point, there's a particularly sad and violent scene, where her brothers drag her from her home, where they try to "drown" the demon out of her, and cleanse her from her sins.  She almost drowns, but resumes her position in the home when they relent.  Soon after, Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) and his apostles arrive and her family asks for His assistance to rid her of her demons, in order to help her recover.

Even though Mary Magdalene is one of my favorite Saints, and Biblical characters, I have to admit, Joaquin Phoenix knocked this out of the park.  His scenes are what still swim around in my head - the writing, his delivery of it, was (in my own opinion), award worthy!  But I'll speak more on that in just a bit . . .



Mary finds Jesus sitting near her, and I would like to believe that (and maybe for the first time), she is seen by another person.  He tells her, with a reassuring smile, that she does not have any demon inside her - and there's a bit of conversation before He departs, leaving Mary changed forever.  The next day, she listens to Jesus give (an amazing) speech about learning to listen to God in the silence.  That his Kingdom (and eventually the Holy Spirit) lies within us.  And that we cannot be lukewarm in our devotions.  We cannot go to Temple (or Church) one day, and then do whatever we please the rest of the week.  It was so powerful, I literally paused and played it until I had the whole speech copied down. 

Almost immediately after, Jesus begins to heal residents and baptizing - and Mary becomes one of the baptized.  In the middle of the night, hearing that He and His Apostles are leaving, she packs a small bag and follows immediately (seemingly the only woman in the group - which leaves her sister aghast).  Her family catches up with the group before they leave, and basically threaten to disown her, but she is not dissuaded and leaves.  Her own ministry has just begun.


I did say I wanted to talk a bit about Mr. Phoenix' performance, and this seems like the perfect moment.  It is here - on the road, and on the travels - we see the crowds desperate for healing and unity.  But we also see the weight of the world creating cracks in Jesus.  His Apostles know to give Him space when he wanders off, but we are never shown if He is talking with His father, or merely needing some space from the constant demands of miracles.  We have most of the Apostles explaining to Mary how He will lead a physical revolt and Judas (oh yes, that Judas), shares how his wife and child had died and when Jesus becomes ruler, He will bring them back to life.  There a lot of assumptions being made, and Mary asks a question here and there, but otherwise doesn't seem to disagree with anything they are saying - because she assumes having joined later than they, that Jesus had simply said all these guarantees beforehand. 

But during the movie, Jesus doesn't make these promises.  He looks to the horizon, and with every miracle, every step, seems to become painfully aware of the final culmination of His Earthly mission.  Frankly, He seems to be the most assured when He is serving the people, and not so much among His companions.  In fact Mary's compassion at His side encourages more than one instance of mercy that see their discipleship growing with more and more women (much to the chagrin of some of the Apostles). 

I can see why this particular take on Jesus might have been uncomfortable to watch.  Jesus Christ (for most Christians) being fully Divine and fully Human, both the Son of Man, and the Son of God forces us to imagine the impossible.  Did Jesus know from the beginning He would end His earthly life on the cross?  If not, when was that moment?  How was His mood?  We know from the Bible that He cried at the sight of Jerusalem, how He overturned tables at the Temple (another amazing scene in this movie in which Mr. Phoenix gave me chills!), and wept in the Garden the night before.  Obviously He was dealing with some very real human emotions. 
Can't it be enough that He fulfilled the Law, do we also need a Savior who smiled through His Passion, devoid of the human aspect of His identity?

This is where I paused, shortly after they arrive in Jerusalem.  I was expecting a huge production of the Passion (i.e. the Passion of the Christ-level), and as someone who can cry at Mass, or during the Rosary contemplating on the Sorrowful Mysteries, or the Stations of the Cross . . . well I knew I would need to be spiritually ready before continuing. 

So on a quiet night, about three weeks after I started, with the kids in bed - I finished the movie.

The temple scene floored me, and shortly after, when Mary walks in on Judas and Jesus talking - I was waiting for some sort of big blow out (something that would make Judas' decision to betray Jesus, at least in his mind, justifiable).  Instead, it was a poignant scene where Judas was a good representation of just about anyone who suffers in this world (which is just about everyone at some point in this life).  He begs Jesus to bring about His Kingdom, that the "time is now", and with tears in his eyes, exclaims how he wants Jesus to bring back his family.

Jesus' watery eyes in reply stun Judas, and though He does not reply, his look reads both pain and confusion.  Did He wonder if His message had been misinterpreted?  Did He already know that this is how He is betrayed?  Does He contemplate raising the dead (again)?  We aren't given insight into the look, but it's clear he will not be doing what Judas demands - no matter how tearful his Apostle is.  Judas scurries off, and Mary and Jesus share one last poignant scene before we head into the Last Supper.

It is painfully glossed over (no mention of betrayal, Judas doesn't leave early, no focus on Jesus establishing the Sacrament of the Eucharist).  Even the scene in the garden goes by quickly - showing Jesus from Mary's point of view heading towards some bushes and disappearing before everything goes to heck.  After the Romans capture Jesus, Judas tells Mary the next morning (after she is knocked out by a Roman guard for trying to stop the arrest) that now Jesus won't have any other option but to usher in the Kingdom, in order to "save Himself". 

Mary is horrified, and is seemingly the only person at this point who seems to understand that He won't be saving Himself, He is saving everyone else with His passion. 
But here is where the movie lost me (before it had me again, before ultimately loosing me again with the ending) . . .
Mary has somewhat of a nervous break in the streets of Jerusalem.  Seeing a bit of the bloody site of the cross strapped to Jesus is enough to make her run away from the crowds (and Jesus!) and literally down in the streets, staring emotionally into the sky.  We are then shown quick scenes of the nailing of the cross, some disciples (and the Blessed Virgin Mary) crying and weeping, interjected with cuts of Mary still lying on the streets imagining herself floating underwater.

It's a human reaction to pain - but not one that has any evidence based on Biblical and Sacred Tradition.  Mary Magdalene is known for having stayed beside His mother the entire time, and even refused to leave the tomb.  Her perseverance was rewarded with the sight of His risen body.  It is a huge part of her identity - that perseverance, that unfailing loyalty - that I was slightly miffed seeing her run the other direction.  Everything up until now was about her compassion - her unflinching ability to be there beside someone suffering (shown multiple times throughout the movie).  But for Her Savior, she runs away?  It seemed, out of character, and instead of rooting for her when she finally decided to head to the cross at almost the end of Jesus' human life, I instead felt, "Why bother now?" 

There are no final words between them.  They give each other a meaningful look, He passes, and I cried when His mother cradled His dead boy in her arms (otherwise I found the actress take on Mother Mary slightly disappointing, in that she seemed cold and aloof - whereas I like to believe she loves us all like Jesus). 

There's a quick cut away to Judas' dead body hanging among otherwise empty buildings, but there's no commentary either by take aways, or the Apostles (though maybe it just didn't make the cut?).  None of the Apostles mention the betrayal, or if Judas was remorseful before killing himself.  Like many other parts of the Passion, it was heavily glossed over, and I was starting to worry about how the ending would go.

See the source image

When everyone has left, Mary is by herself at the tomb - though no hint is given to how long (though the movie makers probably assumed the audience would just know it was three days).  She awakens to hearing her name being called, and when she comes to, she sees Jesus at the bottom of a nearby hill.  She walks towards Him and the scene cuts to her arriving to tell the Apostles the Good News.  I was really worried they would not show the Risen Jesus or have him say anything before the movie ends, but they do swing back after the Apostle scene.

Here's where probably most of the audience felt a huge shift of what exactly the movie was trying to say.  It's this almost awkward shift of power dynamics where Peter comes across as controlling and how he will build the Church, and she can do whatever.  She tries to suggest that they have misinterpreted what Jesus message is, and some scoff (though others seem perplexed at least).  She tells them He is risen, but they seem incredulous to this. 

Again, the entire Bible passage of some of the Apostles racing to the tomb to see for themselves is skipped over - and Mary dismisses herself, unsure of how exactly she will share the message with the world.  We never see the Apostles again, and it is heavily implied that none of them believe He has returned.

We revert to the scene where Mary happily sees Jesus - no longer in pain, smiling, at peace, and they share a sweet (albeit brief moment).  It is very minimal but poignant none the less.

Going into the final shot, we watch Mary on the streets of Jerusalem.  Alone, likely uncertain of what to do next.  But then she sees other women (including Mother Mary) on the streets, and they all smile at her.  She smiles back, begins to walk over to them,
and then the film ends.
There's some post script flashcards that say the Catholic Church erroneously referred to her as a prostitute (implying some sort of smear campaign since it was around the same time her devotion was growing in France).  And then more recently, that she was given the title of Apostle to the Apostles that finally elevated her to the same level. 
So what's my rating?
I am (hesitatingly) giving it three out of five stars.
If it had just been the clips of Joaquin Phoenix' performance, I'd probably have given it five stars!  And really, the acting was amazing - though some characters were given very little to work with.  The overall visual and aesthetics (which seemed to be a minus for some reviewers) seemed quite realistic to the setting and time in my opinion.  The muted undertones felt far more authentic for the poor members of a suppressed region than had the costume department added in a full color wheel of fabrics.

The only reason I knocked off two stars was for the unBiblical representation.  I actually don't mind at all when some artistic license is taken, but by suppressing and glossing over major events (the Last Supper, the betrayal, the Apostles reactions to these events, Mary's role in Jesus passion, the Risen Jesus appearing to His mother and friends) . . . there were just far too many that were outright ignored to give a full rounded picture of Mary's life during these times.  None of these things take away from her message, or her identity.  In fact, by taking these things away, I felt like it stripped away significant events from her life.

So when some felt like this was a "feminist propaganda" movie, I respectfully disagree.  Though maybe someone intended for her to come out on top at the end, I found it disturbing when a group of men in a movie decided that the real Mary Magdalene's life and personal truth, wasn't worth making a movie about.  She was cut down to serve an agenda sure, but the intended one was not what came across to me.

What did you think of the movie?  Did you love it?  Was it hard to get passed the glossed over Biblical inaccuracies?  Did you find Mr. Phoenix performance beautiful, or was it more uncomfortable to see such an emotionally wounded Jesus?

Much love

Read more
- My blog post: How the Catholic Church Embraces the Feminine [ LINK ]
- Take a Virtual Tour of the grotto of St. Mary Magdalene [ LINK ]
- A 3D rendering of what St. Mary Magdalene looked like in real life
(based on the relic in France) [ LINK ]




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