“MARY MAGDALENE” — 2 stars — Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim; R (some bloody and disturbing images); in general release; running time: 120 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — It's normal — and even expected — for filmmakers to take some creative liberties when translating known stories to the big screen, but for many Christians, Garth Davis’ “Mary Magdalene” will represent too much of a departure from canon.
Set during the last year of Christ’s earthly ministry, “Magdalene” is a profile of the woman best known as the first person to see the risen Jesus Christ after his resurrection — but don't expect just an additional gospel seen from Mary’s perspective. For a movie that clocks in at two full hours, it's surprising how little is seen of the New Testament.
As the film opens in A.D. 33, Mary (Rooney Mara) is in a place of personal conflict. She is a valued member of her family, and we see her gift of compassion at work as she guides a family member through a difficult childbirth. But she resists her family’s efforts to marry her off and displays enough erratic behavior that her family concludes she must be possessed of an evil spirit.
It's in this state she first meets Jesus of Nazareth (Joaquin Phoenix), who determines Mary has no demon but is merely wrestling with her innate desire to truly know God. Against her family’s protests — and to the consternation of some of Jesus’ apostles — Mary leaves home to follow Christ’s ministry full-time.
From here, the general trajectory of the story loosely follows the gospel chronology as Christ teaches and heals, always with the threat of the Jewish leadership and the occupying Roman authority close by. Led by Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the apostles struggle to understand the nature of God’s kingdom and whether Christ will liberate the people from the Romans or in more of a spiritual sense. This is especially problematic for Judas (Tahar Rahim), shown here as a man motivated by the belief he will be reunited with his family once Christ delivers the kingdom, presumably in the very near future.
While “Magdalene” is still far from the Bible-twisting gymnastics of Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” — which managed to make the Old Testament prophet the villain of his own story — Davis’ effort still plays a little too fast and loose with his source material, and it seems the film is more interested in trying to understand the story from a secular 21st-century perspective than to truly understand the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Phoenix’s interpretation of Christ, which mostly bypasses the miraculous and inspirational to focus on the weary angst. Phoenix’s Christ seems almost perpetually on the verge of physical exhaustion and speaks with a kind of feeble pleading, while at the same time barely containing his aggravation over the children of men. Phoenix is a fully capable actor, but people will have a difficult time recognizing the Son of God in his performance.
Granted, a spot-on portrayal may be too much to ask considering the personal and impassioned subject matter, and “Magdalene” is respectful if nothing else. But its interpretation of key scenes from the Gospels — including the events of the morning of the resurrection — is bound to be the polarizing takeaway.
It should also be noted that “Mary Magdalene’s” R rating is a soft one, at best. The rating presumably comes from some of the more graphic imagery depicting Christ’s crucifixion, but we’re largely seeing the aftermath of what happened. In other words, “Mary Magdalene” is a far cry from Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” in more ways than one. Even if that were never Davis’ intent, the strengths in his Mary of Magdala profile are offset by a few too many distractions.
Rating explained: “Mary Magdalene” draws a soft R rating from scenes depicting (mostly the aftermath of) the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.