“No one has ever asked me how it feels,” says Jesus Christ to Mary Magdalene, his voice soft and rapt, in response to her similarly tremulous question about oneness with God. Midway through “Mary Magdalene,” it’s an exchange that encapsulates the acutely emo quality of Garth Davis’s revisionist religious biopic — its sensitive focus on interior matters a corrective of sorts to the violent, visceral spectacle of other cinematic Passion Plays. But the question goes pointedly unanswered. It’s not Jesus’s feelings we’re primarily concerned with, after all, but those of his once-maligned female disciple, whose voice and agency in the founding of Christianity are here given their admiring due. Hushed, deliberate and realised with considerable care and beauty, the resulting film has its heart entirely in the right place; its pulse, unfortunately, is far harder to locate.
Though it hits screens internationally in the weeks leading up to Easter, “Mary Magdalene” currently faces an uncertain future Stateside after being pulled from the schedule by the embattled Weinstein Company. Global box office, even given the holiday-appropriate release, isn’t likely to be of the sort that spurs any hesitant distributor into action. With Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix headlining proceedings, and Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett’s script taking a respectful but distanced theological approach, the film is aimed at arthouse audiences rather than the broader faith-based market, but both sectors may well agree on its burlap-textured dullness. For Davis, following the Oscar-gilded success of his debut feature “Lion,” “Mary Magdalene” must be regarded as an ambitious sophomore slump, even as it refines and consolidates his tawny, lyrical style.
That style, once again abetted by the airy calico wizardry of cinematographer Greig Fraser, is increasingly the most enlivening element of “Mary Magdalene” as it settles into a subdued, repetitive rhythm of timid spiritual inquiry and affirmation, the film’s tasteful restraint often tipping over into outright inertia. In an ethereal underwater prologue, Mara’s voiceover echoes a parable from the Book of Matthew, describing the humble growth of Christ’s kingdom as if from a single grain of mustard. The film itself is most compelling when focused on such modest, granular rituals in its introductory stages: those earthy, everyday matters and rituals from which the restless, curious Mary sought a higher calling.
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In coastal Judaea — convincingly played, as are most of the film’s locations, by Italy’s sun-dried Puglia region — Mary lives a life of labor and Jewish devotion with her family of fishermen: tending sheep, casting and retrieving nets in the surf, playing midwife to the community’s young women, and politely observing her lowly place in a stifling patriarchal order. (Jacqueline Durran’s superbly detailed costuming suggests worlds of social and personal difference in subtly different shades of linen.) Mary’s refusal to marry by her early twenties (well past the old-maid cutoff, in male elders’ eyes) is of growing concern to her family, as is the increasingly subversive fervor of her prayer, which crosses boundaries into the male dominion of her faith. “We don’t live in a good age for baptists or prophets,” she’s cautioned, before her family marches her out to sea for a surprise exorcism — the film’s hardest, most heart-stopping set piece, standing in stark, dark contrast to the glowing, rapturous array of repeated baptisms to come.
For Jesus of Nazareth comes into Mary’s life shortly thereafter, and she’s swiftly enveloped in his kinder, more hopeful movement. “In the silence, is there something calling? Do you have the courage to follow what you hear?” he asks her. So she does, even if what we hear in the silence is mainly the swelling, swooning strings of Hildur Guðnadóttir and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s unreservedly vast score — the latter’s last, tragically, which rather heightens the hair-tingling effect of it all. Would that Mary’s religious awakening had quite the same ecstatic effect in the film, but her interactions with Jesus are consistently wan: all breathy ruminations on pained spiritual questions, with little grounded, galvanizing passion between them.
Phoenix is undeniably adventurous casting as the son of God. His performance has a matted, muted, even faintly scuzzy air of fatigue that is right in the actor’s wheelhouse but far from Christ-like in the popular imagination; together with Mara’s fine-china Mary, they seem equally breakable and otherworldly in very different ways. The drab, formal writing, however, gives the actors little room to exploit that strange human bond, while the film shies away from any more carnal connection between them. (The legend of Mary being a prostitute, incidentally, is vehemently denied in a closing-credits disclaimer.)
Three decades on from Scorsese’s exquisite, fire-starting “The Last Temptation of Christ,” then, “Mary Magdalene” can’t help but look cautiously conservative by comparison, despite its ostensible freshness of perspective. There’s some gentle rearrangement of Biblical history, and a reframing of Judas Iscariot’s narrative that works well in large part because Tahar Rahim, watchful and mournful in equal measure as Jesus’s traitor, gives the film’s most riveting performance by some distance. Credit to the casting department for their ingenuity and international scope, finding evocative use for such striking world-cinema figures as Denis Menochet, Ariane Labed and Hadas Yaron on the ensemble’s fringes.
But if the film’s most modern coup is the feminist slant it brings to the Passion, as it places worthy emphasis on the role of Mary and other women in protecting and advancing Christ’s legacy, its unfailing reverence and good taste hold it back in that department too. “Mary Magdalene” professes to show its oft-told tale from an untold perspective, but its characterization of Mary herself feels tentative and incomplete, with little sense of the private urges, impulses and insecurities that drove her from the path women in her age were expected to follow — only outward expressions of devotion in the face of doubt. “What do you fear in yourself?” she’s asked early on. “My thoughts, my longings, my unhappiness,” she replies, though “Mary Magdalene” never gets much more specific than that. If its eponymous heroine is alarmed by such roiling internal complications, this graceful but soporific tribute seems equally nervous around them.