As early as 2016, Hollywood was already abuzz that a new Mary Magdalene movie was in the works. After all, the often-controversial female follower of Jesus—what with varying accounts of her true role during the life, passion and death of the Lord—has never had her own biopic since first appearing in a 1912 movie “From the Manger to the Cross.”
Simply titled “Mary Magdalene,” the movie, which opened in Philippine cinemas on Wednesday, created an even bigger buzz when two-time Oscar-nominated actress Rooney Mara (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Carol”) was confirmed to play the titular role. As a whole, its producers describe the period film as an “authentic and humanistic portrait of one of the most enigmatic and misunderstood spiritual figures in history
With three-time Oscar-nominee Joaquin Phoenix (“Gladiator,” “Walk the Line” and “The Master”) portraying Jesus Christ, to say that much is expected from Mary Magdalene is an understatement what with Australian movie director Garth Davis (“Lion”) at the helm, and See-Saw Films (“The King’s Speech”) bankrolling the production.
To be precise, the movie should be nothing short of spectacular.
However, as reviews from global movie critics start to roll in, it seems that Mary Magdalene is not quite living up to the hype and the Biblical figure herself.
Mary Magdalene is the story of a young woman who leaves her small fishing village and family to join a new movement. Inspired by the charismatic leader Jesus of Nazareth (Phoenix) and his teachings, Mary (Mara) joins his and his disciples in traveling to Jerusalem, where she finds herself at the center of the founding story of Christianity.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, the movie is “a Biblical drama with a stylish high-art look and a timely feminist angle.”
The reviewer, Stephen Dalton, however went straight into describing the movie’s flaws with undiluted honesty: “The key casting weakness at the heart of Mary Magdalene is Mara, her porcelain-doll beauty and laser-beam gaze failing to disguise her blank presence and narrow range—hardly an ideal match for a role that demands screen-filling, history-changing charisma. Thankfully a heavily bearded [Joaquin] Phoenix brings more firepower, playing Jesus as a doubt-wracked mystic-stoner cult leader somewhere between Charles Manson and The Dude from The Big Lebowski.”
Peter Rabbit of the movie review site Rotten Tomato agrees with Dalton as he wrote, “Mara brings her customary intensity to the role, but she doesn’t have much to do beyond gazing beatifically at the ever-enigmatic Phoenix.”
The same blank expression did not escape Paul Byrnes who wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald, “Mary is completely blank: we never know what drives her extreme unhappiness because Mara is like a white sheet with eye holes: paint on her what you will, because she’s giving nothing away.”
Still, for a Catholic nation like the Philippines, Mary Magdalene may be worth watching as Holy Week approaches since it nevertheless presents “The greatest story ever told,” albeit from a different perspective, and in this present time.
“Every generation approaches their own retelling or re-imagining of stories based on the contemporary time,” producer Iain Canning said in an interview.
“If you’re making a film you’ve got to have some sort of contemporary resonance, otherwise it’s not going to find an audience. We felt there was room to tell the story of Mary Magdalene—that the female perspective of this particular story of the life and death of Jesus Christ was a new way into that story and that it would also shine a light on contemporary issues,” he ended.