Cinema is a powerful medium: it can make you shake with laughter, tremble in fear or weep profusely; you can be a different person when you leave the cinema from the one who entered. Mary Magdalene elicits none of those emotions. Never have I ever felt such an immense wave of nothingness from watching a film. The experience of watching Mary Magdalene is like staring blankly at a beige wall while eating a stale communion wafer. This is the unseasoned chicken of cinema.
Traditionally, plot follows a rise and fall structure. Mary Magdalene is a straight horizontal line — and on that straight horizontal line, Jesus, Mary and the other disciples walk and preach and baptise their way to Jerusalem. Even the eventual crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is anticlimactic — the image of Jesus nailed to a cross with a crown of thorns is an iconic image, but it also left me feeling nothing beyond, “Oh, I know that!”, like some biblical easter egg. If only that scene involved Rooney Mara taking a drag of a cigarette next to a bloody Joaquin Phoenix.
History hasn’t been too kind on Mary Magdalene. Despite being the first person to witness the resurrection of Jesus, the apostle has a tarnished reputation for being a prostitute — a claim that has never been supported. Garth Davis’s follow-up to the tearjerker Lion sets to repair that image, retelling the New Testament with Mary as its protagonist and depicting the female saint as a woman empowered by the word of God.
In this feminist-leaning Biblical dramatisation, Mary not only decides to follow Jesus because of her powerful faith, but also to escape her stifling family. They are convinced a demon has possessed her and try to force her into an arranged marriage she doesn’t want. When her father violently attempts to expel her demons, Rooney Mara’s beautifully expressive face convey her total disillusionment with life. She soon finds comfort in the visiting Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix, who really does look like Jesus) and is compelled to join him and his all-male group of apostles when he suggests she should ignore her family.
However, the film’s self-proclaimed progressiveness becomes muddled when the film shifts its focus to Jesus, disappointingly sidelining its own protagonist. Jesus is a legendary figure to say the least, sprinkled throughout art, culture and history, yet somehow, the son of God is lifeless — even before he’s crucified. Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix are two of the best actors working today, but even their performances suggest an impatience for the director to call wrap.
Mara is nevertheless a captivating presence in this attractive but unbearably dull biopic — even the most passionate of believers won’t be entirely convinvced. With Mary Magdalene, Garth Davis intended to revitalise her myth, but with a film as boring as a Sunday morning church service for an atheist maybe he should’ve put it to rest.