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Last year about this time, Jennifer and I watched a movie called Risen about the aftermath of the Crucifixion. The film turned out to be mostly good (which is saying a lot considering Jesus literally takes off like a rocket ship during the ascension).
I have a difficult time watching film adaptations of biblical stories because when they come from a Christian production team, they tend to misunderstand the art of filmmaking and storytelling, and when they come from secular production teams, they tend to misunderstand Christianity. Rare is the film that lands in the middle. Risen, however, took a unique perspective on the Resurrection story and mostly succeeded. I considered it a win.
So why was Jennifer crying when it ended?
She was struck, and strongly, by something I’d completely missed. In the film’s key scene, the centurion who’s been trying to prove that Christ’s body has been stolen stumbles into the upper room and witnesses the man he crucified enjoying a meal with the disciples. He’s dumbfounded—and even welcomed. Jesus is alive, enjoying the company of his friends, hugging them, laughing with them. And amid all the awe and brotherly affection on display, there’s a quick shot of Mary Magdalene standing in the corner looking on with a mild smile.
Therein lay the painful message of the film for my wife: This isn’t for you—this beautiful person, this Christ, is here for them, for the men, for his friends.
That probably seems dramatic to some of you, especially if you’re male. But I immediately recognized how hurtful it must be to so often feel you’re on the outside looking in. It was an eye-opener. For a story to resonate at its strongest, we must feel we are a part of it, we must see ourselves represented in it. And Scripture is poorly served if we’re telling the story of Christ and missing the importance of Mary, the first witness to the Resurrection, the Apostle to the Apostles. After all, for half of the people on the planet, she’s one of the ways in which God says, “You too are a part of my story.”
Another year. Another Easter movie. This past week we watched Mary Magdalene, a new film starring Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, and Chiwitel Ejiofor, and I was hopeful that not only would Mary be redeemed from the historical injustice of being cast as a prostitute, but that the film, told from her perspective, would begin to amend the oversight of films like Risen.
The film is wondrously quiet and beautifully shot. Rooney Mara’s Mary is so compelling to watch that you can hardly look away from her. She’s presented as a midwife who feels called to a life beyond that of a wife and mother. Her father and brother don’t approve of this longing in her and try to literally exorcise her demons in order to get her to marry the man they’ve arranged for her. It’s in the midst of this that Jesus comes to town and she hears him calling out for those who will to come and be fishers of men.
This first act of the film is breathtaking. It reveals the reality of a woman’s life in that time and place and the heroic act it must have been for Mary to defy her father to follow a man not her husband. Peter and the others sacrifice their work and their families to follow, but in this story Mary risks the retribution of her father and the shattering of her reputation to heed Christ’s call. When Mary’s father asks Jesus, “Is this what you want? To divide children from their families?” Jesus responds: “Mothers from sons. Daughters from fathers,” and in that context, heard from the feminine perspective, Christ’s call to to follow him takes on a whole new set of colors.
The film follows the relationship of Mary and Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and the Crucifixion, and in large part does so with lovely restraint. There’s no hint of a romantic relationship (thankfully) and it’s wonderful to watch his interactions with Mary. They are each quiet, gentle, empathic—whispered moments of close friendship.
Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Jesus is sometimes delightful, sometimes strange, and as I watched, I was willing to overlook the occasional strangeness of his performance and the pseudo-scriptural things he had to say as long as the story could maintain its direction and end well.
For the record, I think if you’re going to put Jesus into your movie, he should either be silent or speak primarily in scriptural quotes, especially when he’s teaching. What happens here is a sort of poetic elision of scriptural ideas that sound like scripture but aren’t. It almost works. But is almost good enough when we’re talking about the Word of God?
I hadn't realized until I saw Mary Magdalene how hungry I am to see a feminine perspective of the Gospel story more prominently on display in film.Pete Peterson
Before Jesus goes to Gethsemane, he and Mary have a brief conversation, a quiet moment, in which he tells her, “You will be my witness.” This statement filled me with hope. One of the greatest attestations of the Resurrection is that the first witnesses to it are women. In the society of the day, women could not testify in court. Women’s voices didn’t matter. No one would invent something as fantastical as the Resurrection and then suggest that a women would be its star witness. It’s the kind of detail that can only be true. And it’s also the kind of detail by which the Kingdom of God turns everything we know on its head. And so to hear Christ proclaim to Mary that she would be his witness was a sign that the film might be winding up to hit a home run.
Maybe I shouldn’t have hoped for so much. The film comes, after all, from a secular production team.
Yes, Mary is the first witness to the Resurrection, but what follows drives the film off the orthodoxical cliff it had been so treacherously teetering along. As she reports what she’s seen to the Apostles, they disbelieve. They don’t even run to see if she’s telling the truth. Instead we’re given a scene in which Mary and Peter argue over the true meaning of Christ’s message, and Peter demands to know why he appeared to her alone. Mary argues that what Jesus taught all along is that we need to be more compassionate to the sick, the poor, the weak, that the power to bring forth the Kingdom resides within each of us. Peter argues that the Kingdom is yet to come, that Christ will return and overturn all the governments of the world, bringing the rebellion they’d been looking for. They are both missing the mark here, yet the filmmaker comes down firmly in Mary’s camp.
Mary’s response, and the denoument of the film? “That’s not his message. It’s yours,” she says, implying that the church Peter would go on to found would be an epic missing of the entire point. She tells him that the “world only changes as we change,” resolving Jesus’ message into a tired humanism and setting up the idea that Peter’s church might even want to distance itself from her, maybe to the point of slandering her with stories of prostitution. “You weakened us,” he tells her. “You weakened Him.” I want to shake them both.
The film ends with Mary returning to the tomb alone to visit the resurrected Christ.
This is disappointing, troubling in a multitude of ways. But let’s recognize that this is not all the film has to offer. There’s a wealth of good material here in the final scenes and elsewhere and I believe in praising that which is praiseworthy. The final scene ends the film on a touching and intimate note that culminates with the parable of the mustard seed.
Mary Magdalene is a beautiful film. It boasts some fantastic performances. Its landscapes and cinematography are gorgeous. The contemplative tone is lovely and poetic. The way it immerses the viewer in the story in a grounded way and through a unique perspective is remarkable. The diversity of its cast is wonderful to see. And it’s a film that, despite its regrettable end point and a few bumps along the way, takes us on a tour of a lot of wonderful territory. It’s a film in which many may see themselves in the Gospel story in a way they never have before, and that’s a good and beautiful thing.
I hadn’t realized until I saw Mary Magdalene how hungry I am to see a feminine perspective of the Gospel story more prominently on display in film. I want more films that allow my wife to see herself represented as a beloved and valued heir of the King. I want to see more films that teach the young girls of the world how important they are in the Kingdom. I want more films that validate the callings of women to all areas of life, and leadership, and prominence in both society and the church. I don’t want these virtues at the expense of orthodoxy, but I also don’t want them at the expense of artistic excellence and meaningful storytelling. One day, we’ll have both, and all these things will resolve into glory.
Until then, I take what I can get. And that means I’ll leave the bad where I find it, but I’m also happy to look for the good and take what I can from Mary Magdalene.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.