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Mary Magdalene—A New Twist on Jesus Films

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Mary Magdalene—A New Twist on Jesus Films

One of my spiritual practices on Good Friday, or sometime during Holy Week, is to watch the classic 1977 British-Italian television miniseries directed by Franco Zeffirelli, Jesus of Nazareth—my favorite “Jesus film” of all time. Watching especially the passion, death, and resurrection scenes allow me to connect deeply and concretely with the reality that we celebrate during the Holy Triduum. Robert Powell’s powerful blue eyes and stoic demeanor captivate me, though his lack of varied expression does become tedious at times! Now that I am a film reviewer and critic, I see it differently than I did as a child seeing it for the first time.

This year, however, I am struck by the new film Mary Magdalene (2018) currently in theaters, which—though not strictly a film about the life of Christ—is very much about Jesus as experienced and seen through the eyes of a woman whom scholars, popes, and theologians call “the apostle to the Apostles.”

Most of my life I heard Mary Magdalene conflated with the sinful woman of Luke’s Gospel (7:36-50). In Jesus of Nazareth she is portrayed as so. Actually, she is portrayed specifically as a prostitute. Because of this film, that image of her from my childhood remained with me for many years. Scholars have discovered that Pope Gregory in 591 gave a homily in which he associated Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman, Mary of Bethany, and explicitly refers to the sins as sexual. Prior to that time, the early Fathers never mentioned her in this way. Luke writes (8:2) that seven demons were driven out of Mary Magdalene. It gives no further explanation but in no way implies that she was “possessed” because she was sinful. Pope Gregory interpreted the seven demons as the seven capital sins, thereby including the sexual sins and making her into a prostitute. This interpretation stayed with the Western Church until the twentieth century when fragments of some apocryphal writings about Mary were discovered. Scholars now believe the women mentioned are all separate individuals and that Mary Magdalene was a faithful follower of Jesus from the beginning of his public life.

This new biblical drama about her life was written by Helen Edmundson and Phillipa Goslett and directed by Garth Davis. It takes the perspective of current biblical scholars and shows Mary (Rooney Mara) as a faithful young Jew desiring to know God and to live her life for God. The beginning scenes show her refusing an arranged marriage by her father, feeling she is never to marry. Her family is horrified, especially her father and brothers; her mother died when she was young. They become so angry for her refusing what women at that time were “meant” to do, that they take her in the middle of the night to the river’s edge and dunk her in the sea as a way to expel the demons from her, almost to the point of drowning her. They then call on “the Healer” to talk to her. Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) comes and sees that what she really desires is to follow God; he sees that is her reason for not marrying. Her encounter with Love Itself transfixes her so greatly that she runs away from home to follow Jesus with the other disciples.

Rooney Mara plays Mary beautifully and tenderly. Joaquin Phoenix would not be my choice of a Jesus, especially because he looks a mess and so unkempt in comparison to the Apostles, but also because he has a dark brooding glance. Somehow I can only think of him as the emperor’s son, Commodus in Gladiator, a menacing character. Yet he is gentle with Mary and brings her along with the other disciples, even though they grumble about having her in their company. She is an outsider, just as women were at the time of Christ. Jesus treats her differently. She becomes his disciple who leads other women to follow Jesus.

In one beautiful scene, Jesus goes to the river’s edge where women are doing their washing. Jesus looks at Mary Magdalene and says, “What should I teach?” And Mary responds, “Are women so different from men that you must teach us different things?” The other women join in by saying, “We are women. Our lives are not our own.” To which Jesus responds, “Your spirits are your own. And you alone answer for that… and your spirit is precious to God.” One woman shares how women are sometimes treated by the men in their lives, to which Jesus responds, “Though they judge you, persecute you, you must forgive them… there is no other way to enter the kingdom of God.” He says that carrying hatred in our hearts only consumes our lives. The men who act in such horrible ways are also carrying hatred in their hearts. Jesus tells them that forgiveness alone is the way of the kingdom of God. It’s a touching scene that leads many women to seek baptism, and Mary assists. She is the disciple that brings other women to Jesus. What a lovely image that is! When the scriptures list the women disciples who follow Jesus and take care of his needs, they always list Mary Magdalene first, giving her a leadership role. Throughout the film, she explains what Jesus preaches about to the other disciples, which they resent. Some, however, defend her.

After entering Jerusalem and before the passion begins, Mary washes Jesus’ feet and he looks at her with tears in his eyes as he says, “It has begun. Don’t stop it now. Don’t let them [the Apostles] stop it.” To which Mary replies, “I’ll be with you. I won’t leave.” Jesus with utter compassion tells Mary, “You are my witness.” Peter, from a distance, looks on. And then tells the Master that it is time for the Passover meal.

Mary is most eminently present at the death and resurrection of Jesus, which the film especially notes. In fact, the film takes the view of all the events through her eyes. In a very poetic and symbolic way, the filmmakers show Mary in dizzying confusion on the road to Calvary and at the foot of the cross as Jesus looks down at her with a look of gratitude and infinite love. Jesus’ mother is also there; earlier, she told Mary Magdalene, “I see that you love my son.” Mary watches as his mother receives her dead son into her arms, trying to make sense of it while remembering the Master’s words.

And so when Mary is the first to see Jesus risen from the dead, he tells her to go and tell his disciples that he is alive. I think that if I were to see Jesus risen from the dead, I would be ecstatic and excitedly run to tell the Apostles. In the film, Mary—perhaps with some trepidation and fear—finds the disciples in the upper room and tells them what Jesus wants her to relay to them. Peter doesn’t believe her at first, and says, “Why would he come to you alone?”

Mary responds, “Why does that matter?” Many of them scoff at her and believe she is delusional, since the kingdom of God is here and now; but many are still suffering, and persecution looms. Mary holds fast to her conviction and repeats the words of Jesus to them until Peter finally says, “I believe you.” Mary speaks with conviction. “I will not stay and be silent. I will be heard.” The film ends with Mary Magdalene walking amid the people and all the other women followers of Jesus, including his mother Mary, as if they are the ones going forth to proclaim the resurrection.

They are the women of the resurrection who are the first to experience the power of the redemption. They are the ones who take the words of Jesus and ponder it in their hearts being sowers of the seed of the Word to the world. Mary Magdalene has now become one of my Holy Triduum films to guide me to ponder, reflect, and pray with during the most sacred time of the year. Mary Magdalene has become my superhero, the one who shows me how to be a faithful, loving disciple of Jesus.

by Nancy Usselmann, FSP

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