One of many films on the Weinstein Company’s slate before its collapse is finally getting its stateside release. Ironically just in time for Easter, the latest version of the story of Mary Magdalene sees Rooney Mara and director Garth Davis reunited, who previously worked together on Lion. However, audiences might wonder why another distributor would bother to release this film in theaters given the final product is nothing more than uninspiring.
Mary (Rooney Mara) lives in a small Jewish community in Judea and from the very opening, she seems at odds with her existence. Living under Roman oppression is not the only restriction she lives through, as the men around her believe she has duties to fulfill, one of which is to marry. When Mary refuses to marry a man within the community, she is ridiculed and her life is even threatened by the men within her family. Conveniently enough, this is when Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) arrives, and Mary is inspired by his words, particularly when he tells everyone that they should not be ashamed of their faith under Roman rule. Mary decides to follow Jesus and his disciples on their journey to Jerusalem.
It is difficult to comprehend why anyone would follow this portrayal of Jesus. Though Phoenix is one of the most charismatic actors in the modern era, his character offers little here, and though he gives a humble and restrained performance, I cannot imagine anybody wanting to follow a man with such little allure. One explanation could be that the writers Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett along with director Davis have decided to approach Jesus’s ability to heal and bring people back to life as the spark that brings him followers. However, these supernatural moments are jarring, and it would have been better to avoid them given that the rest of the film is presented naturalistically.
The scenes between Mara and Phoenix are one such element of naturalism, and Mara’s performance is as equally reverent as Phoenix’s; their scenes do generate some interest for the audience. This is because of the dialogue in their scenes comes across naturally wherein other character’s dialogue, particularly the disciples, is often heightened, alienating the audience. Much of the dialogue is softly spoken throughout the runtime and there are barely any moments of tension which makes the pace of this film feel slow. The interpretation to make both Jesus and Mary appear as modest human beings with such gentle storytelling clashes with the intense language from other characters, along with the rare, melodramatic happenings.
Simplicity is shown through the technical aspects as well in Mary Magdalene, particularly in the production design and music. There are frequent shots of vast unspoilt Italian hills representing the Middle East, and the score provided by Hildur Guðnadóttir and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson never overpowers the action or coerces the audience into the emotion of a scene, as it is heard only faintly.
Those looking for a new insight into this biblical story need not spend time with this film. There is an attempt to tell the narrative with care and emotion, but the extreme softness in storytelling is likely to have the audience scoffing in boredom. Even the most well-known events are glossed over in the final act, and all subtlety is removed. Ultimately, the endeavour to make an insightful film about Mary Magdalene has not paid off here and has resulted in a drab and completely forgettable film.