In some ways, what got me to watch this film was a throwback to the old days, being drawn to a film through its soundtrack. Back then it would be a new James Horner album, these days its either scores/albums by Bear McCreary maybe or, in this case, Jóhann Jóhannsson. Unfortunately, as is the case with James Horner, being drawn to a film by way of Jóhannsson’s work is soon to be something of the past- this score was his final film project before his passing in February this year. Co-written with the cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir, a frequent collaborator over his, this is a delicate and sensitive score. Throughout the film it impressed upon me how much the film world has lost with his passing- the music and its placement is a frequent joy through the film and often I’d just reflect on how good a score it is. I bought the album several months ago and as a listening experience it is fine, but within the film it really does surprise, and delivers on another level entirely. It just makes the film all the more affecting and a sober experience.
The film itself is a fascinating and very finely crafted piece. Beautifully photographed with some stunning locations, it feels quite authentic, reminding somewhat of the similarly excellent Agora, another film revealing a ‘hidden history’ with a feminist angle.
As might be expected by the title, Mary Magdalene is a biblical tale, a sort of re-interpretation, or reboot, if you will, of the story of Mary Magdalene and her place in the story of Jesus Christ. It shares ideas and themes raised within The Da Vinci Code book/film, that the Catholic Church in the sixth century, in particular Pope Gregory in 591AD, rewrote history and cast Mary as a prostitute in order to encourage a male-centered doctrine and power over the Catholic Church and its teachings that was maintained for centuries.
There’s naturally some tendency to see this film as a part of the ‘me-too’ movement and placement of women in their deserved position of integrity and power, a feeling of a wrong being righted. I suppose with regards faith and religion, everything should be taken with some sensitivity and care- some will see this film, and the Biblical story of Christ retold here, with as much a pinch of salt as The DaVinci Code or as much reverence as befitting the Jedi religion of Star Wars. Others will take it as truth or even heresy. But simply as a story, and a film, this is a dramatic and fascinating piece.
Strangely enough, over and above the interpretations of Rooney Mira’s Mary Magdaline or Joaquin Phoenix’s Jesus, is how the film portrays Judas Iscariot (Tahar Rahim) and reinterprets his motivations with some sympathy, rather than simply depicting him a villain. Here he is utterly confident that the subject of his devotion will usurp and overthrow the Roman tyranny and free his people, and in particular, reunite Judas with his fallen wife and child. Judas’ treachery here isn’t for silver coins but rather to force the Messiah’s hand and bring about everyone’s salvation. Judas is convinced that when trapped by the Romans, his lord will be saved by God and the evil Empire torn down. His horror at how events actually unfold is palpable and his own end inevitable.
In some ways, this film is not a religious one- it depicts some of the miracles of Christ and events from the bible with some detachment- which may be the films failure, as it fails to really emotionally engage- its more an intellectual exercise. Joaquin Phoenix’s Jesus, while not wholly successful, is suitably enigmatic and detached from everyone around him, and his friendship with Magdalene, while warm and convincing, curiously seems to infer that only she perhaps really understands him and his word. There is a sense of humanity corrupting or misunderstanding Christs teachings. After the crucifixion the Apostles already begin to fragment and argue over the teachings of their master, while Mary and her truth walks away into oblivion.