New Film to Focus on the Story of Mary Magdalene

Rooney Mara stars as the title character in the new film “Mary Magdalene” alongside Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus. Photo courtesy of IFC Films

Daughter. Sister. Doula. Repairer of nets. Fisher of men (and women). Revolutionary. Believer. Healer. Baptizer. Companion. Witness. Disciple. Apostle to the apostles.

In the new film “Mary Magdalene,” the biblical character Mary of Magdala is all of these things and more — but not the one role in which she was historically (mis)cast: the so-called “fallen woman.”

Misunderstood, misinterpreted, and maligned, only in recent years has Mary Magdalene’s reputation been restored, both by official religious decree and in popular consciousness.

In the new film, Rooney Mara’s depiction of Jesus’ closest female follower — “Mary you are my witness,” he tells her after she washes his feet before the Last Supper — is the embodiment of this contemporary (some might say “corrected”) vision of an ancient archetype.

For nearly two millennia, Mary Magdalene’s enigmatic persona has captured the imagination of artists of all stripes, from painters, iconographers and sculptors, to novelists, musicians and poets.

In most of these portrayals, Western art has depicted Magdalene, variously, as a voluptuous ginger-haired temptress, a sorrowful penitent who weeps as she prays for forgiveness and a dutiful follower clutching the foot of the cross on which Jesus suffers or cradling his feet while his mother holds his crucified corpse.

“Mary Magdalene” Director Garth Davis and his filmmaking partners went into their initial stages of research “assuming we would be making a film about a prostitute,” said Producer Iain Canning. “We were just sort of embarrassed and horrified that we’d been part of a mistaken narrative. So that was even more a catalyst and reason to fast-track as much as we possibly could a different interpretation.”

Raven-haired, lithe Mara, who is perhaps best known for her title role in David Fincher’s thriller “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” portrays Mary Magdalene with an almost hushed delivery. Her understated, clear-eyed portrayal lent new dimension to the woman who is at once sacred icon and artistic iconoclast.

The result is a nuanced and quiet, almost contemplative, film where viewers might find themselves leaning in to listen more closely.

The film debuted in the United Kingdom and Europe last year, but its U.S. release was delayed when, in the wake of the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, producers sought a new distributor to replace the Weinstein Company. The film found a new home at IFC, which released the film on April 12.

Poet Marie Howe’s 2017 collecction, “Magdalene:
Poems.” RNS photo by Cathleen Falsani.

“I’ve been trying to write in the voice of Mary Magdalene for maybe 35 years — it may be my oldest impulse,” said Marie Howe, the former poet laureate of New York and author of the 2017 collection “Magdalene: Poems.”

“Like so many women throughout the Western, Judeo-Christian world, I was compelled by Mary Magdalene because she seemed like me, she seemed recognizable. At the same time, I sensed that the woman I saw in paintings and who was described by priests and church fathers was a lie,” Howe said.

In Howe’s poetry, Magdalene is a kind of everywoman. In some poems she is a mother, in others a single woman and then a young girl. In the poem “Magdalene — The Seven Devils,” based on the biblical passage in Luke that describes Mary of Magdala “from whom seven devils were cast out,” the poet reimagines what those “devils” might have been.

The first was that I was very busy.

The second — I was different from you: whatever happened to you could

not happen to me, not like that.

The third — I worried.

The fourth — envy, disguised as compassion.

“She’s you,” Howe said. “She’s me.”

The exorcism of Mary is one of the more harrowing scenes in the “Mary Magdalene” film. What possesses her, as with Howe’s depiction, is less a demon than her having a mind of her own — a “sin” she nearly pays for with her life.

It is while Mary Magdalene is recovering from the would-be exorcism that she first meets Jesus, played by Joaquin Phoenix. “There are no demons here,” he tells Mary, smiling as he places a hand on her forehead. “Rest now. Rest in the light.”

Vermont artist Janet McKenzie has created dozens of paintings depicting sacred and biblical characters, including her well-known 2000 portrait “Jesus of the People,” where the model she used was an African-American woman.

McKenzie’s “Mary Magdalene — Invitation to Love” presents the female disciple as a woman of color draped in violet and rose-hued robes and holding a red egg between her tented fingers, a traditional symbol that “Christ is risen.”

“This is Mary Magdalene for the church of the 21st century,” McKenzie said. “(She) is presented here for the women of the church today who teach the children, raise the funds, clean the pews, comfort the sick and dying, preach the word, preside at the Eucharist and work for justice.

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Source: Religion News Service