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Movie Review: 'Mary Magdalene' Offers an Inspired Revisionist Take on an Age-Old Story

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It's going to be a sad day for me when Rooney Mara makes a superhero movie. She's been doing her Audrey Hepburn-esque thing for more than a decade, so it's something of a miracle that it hasn't happened already. I admire gifted, intelligent actors who hold out. Of course, her ability to abstain from the gravy train may derive not solely from integrity and taste but from the fact that she comes from money. When Mara's not in Hollywood not making comic-book pictures, she funds a charity called Faces of Kibera that provides care and housing to orphans in Nairobi.

Mary Magdalene, truthfully, is the closest to a superhero movie a biblical drama has ever come. Scripted with inspired revisionist deftness by the Brit team of Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, and directed by Garth Davis (Lion), this is the greatest story ever told and told as beautifully as it ever has been, if not better. And, hey, if you're going to put a new spin on the Jesus saga, who better to cast than that on-camera wild card (and Mara's real-life squeeze) Joaquin Phoenix?

I'm baffled by the film's lukewarm reviews. It's a first-rate feat in every respect. Admittedly, the opening section is a trifle shaky. With minimal orientation, we're thrust into the bustle and trouble of a dysfunctional family living in first-century Judaea. The source of domestic consternation is Mary, a young woman given to spaciness and speaking in tongues. She's repulsed by the prospect of a marriage her father has arranged, and even more annoyed when he drags her into the ocean to cleanse her of demons.

The piece missing from the puzzle of Mary's existence arrives just in time. The menfolk have taken to sneaking off the job to listen to the teachings of a charismatic stranger known as "the healer." One day Mary alarms her female friends by joining the guys. One look at the bearded figure curing the sick and giving sight to the blind, and her purpose is revealed.

Many critics have nitpicked Phoenix's speech patterns and overall approach to the part. Down to the minutest detail, however, I found his take enormously compelling.

Here's where the superhero parallel comes into play: This retelling starts when Jesus and his disciples have only recently gotten into the messiah business. Davis effectively portrays the conflicting agendas within the ragtag group. Some, like Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), are in it to topple the empire. Others, such as Judas (Tahar Rahim), are basically fanboys who've gotten it into their heads that the Kingdom of God that Jesus means to establish on Earth will bring the dead back to life.

Judas is convinced he'll be reunited with his daughter, especially after the whole Lazarus thing. It's the boldest reinterpretation of the character I've seen. This Judas isn't a traitor. He simply assumes that because Christ can raise the dead, he will. With powers that great, he figures, Jesus will easily be able to handle Roman captors.

Meanwhile, Mary Magdalene and Jesus develop a moving intimacy. Of all his followers, she has the coolest head and purest heart. In one of the film's finest scenes, she asks "what it's like to be one with God." He smiles and replies, "No one has ever asked me." We never get the answer, naturally. The filmmakers aren't about to take that liberty. Yet it's a sign of how subtle and searching this reframing of Mary's story is that the question is even raised.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Mary Magdalene"

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Related Film

Mary Magdalene

Director: Garth Davis

Writer: Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett

Cast: Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim, Ariane Labed, Denis Ménochet, Lubna Azabal, Tchéky Karyo, Hadas Yaron and Ryan Corr

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