The film is the first to tell the story of Jesus through the eyes of a female protagonist: Mary Magdalene, his companion and disciple. But does it really break with the past and transcend cinematic Bible kitsch?
The figure of Mary Magdalene in cinematic adaptations of Bible stories has always stood in the shadow of Jesus of Nazareth. But in the movie "Mary Magdalene," directed by Garth Davis and released in movie theaters around the world on March 15, the title character gets her day. Finally, some will say.
Played by Rooney Mara, one of the most successful Hollywood actresses today, this Mary Magdalene is beautiful, dare it be said, quite beautiful. Mara brings a tender, dark-eyed, almost elfish-look to the role. In some scenes, she even recalls Audrey Hepburn. Is this Hollywood kitsch?
Beyond the Bible basics
Some viewers might think so. Others will be captivated by Mara's on-screen appearance.
And yet: Haven't the numerous Bible films screened in cinemas and on television over the past decades always portrayed Jesus of Nazareth as a handsome young man, with a perfectly trimmed beard and penetrating gaze?
Film adaptations of the Bible have long been their own chapter in film history. The questions raised by screen portrayals of biblical figures feed arguments on authenticity and representation that are well worth having, especially when Hollywood takes on the topic.
Johann Hinrich Claussen, Protestant theologian and cultural commissioner for the Evangelical Church in Germany [an umbrella federation of Protestant denominations, Eds.] wrote in his review of "Mary Magdalene" for the Protestant-affiliated news agency epd that films drawn from Bible stories "go beyond their basis material, flesh out protagonists that are often just simple sketches, add figures, invent additional scenes, construct new conflicts that increase the drama and, above all, give protagonists more extensive dialogue that try to make their feelings and thoughts understandable for a modern audience."
Rehabilitating Mary Magdalene
One should always look at Bible films against this backdrop, remembering that the direction, camera, music and cast turn the historic-religious source material into something singular and artificial.
This has been true of such great film artists as Pier Paolo Pasolini, who in 1964 brought his interpretation of the biblical story to life in the "The Gospel According to Matthew" using sparse black-and-white film and amateur actors. Incidentally, the figure of Mary Magdalene did not appear in the film.
In 'Mary Magdalene' Peter is portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor (above). Biblical figures have typically been protrayed by white actors.
The new "Mary Magdalene" film is first and foremost an (art)work that brings with it all the strengths and weaknesses of a Bible film. The strengths outweigh the weaknesses. One can well agree with the judgment of the Catholic film expert Peter Hasenberg, who has praised the attempt by Garth Davis and his team to bring in the female perspective. Davis' film, he writes, should be understood as an "attempt to rehabilitate Mary Magdalene as a companion to Jesus who is of equal standing to the apostles."
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Mary Magdalene: first resurrection witness
In the previous Bible films that depicted Mary Magdalene, she often appeared in the context of sexual innuendo, even prostitution.
That is not the case in this new film. Hasenberg writes: "'Mary Magdalene' ... recounts the story of this woman using broadly fictionalized expansions; it does not seek to sensationally reinterpret the story, but underlines what constitutes its core in the Bible, namely, that Mary Magdalene was the first witness at the tomb [of Jesus] and the first to proclaim his resurrection."