What a terrific season, amazing postseason, and a surreal, singular Finals series! And what an incredible, genuinely special group of players! Of course, I'm thrilled for Toronto and for my adopted home-country generally (on a personal level, it's pretty cool that this Raptors season coincided with my finally, officially becoming a Canadian citizen!), but most of all, I'm just so happy for the guys on this team. Just try not to smile, cry, or both watching this clip. Or this one. In a time of seemingly constant bad news, this is some sweet relief.


All Things Made New

In what was probably its original and intended form, the oldest of the four canonically accepted gospels, the text attributed to Mark, ended as follows:

But they, going out, fled from the sepulchre; for a trembling and fear had seized them. And they said nothing to any man; for they were afraid.

That’s it: “trembling and fear.” The plural subject referred to here are three women, Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Salome. They had come to the tomb of Jesus “very early in the morning, on the first day of the week” to anoint his body with spices. When they entered, they instead found an unspecified “young man” dressed in white, who told them that Jesus had already risen. He urged the women to deliver this news to Peter and the other apostles, and to tell them to travel on to Galilee, where they would meet again with their leader, Jesus. But, according to the evangelist (Mark 16:8, quoted above), they did not pass on this mysterious young man’s instruction, “for they were afraid.”

That may well have been where the author of the oldest extant gospel abruptly concluded his narrative, but, of course, that isn’t the end of the story as we have it. The news of the risen Jesus did spread well beyond those three women, to Peter and the others, to Saul of Tarsus, and, in the centuries that followed, to every part of the Roman Empire. Two continuations (a longer addition and a shorter one) were later appended to the text of Mark, wherein Jesus himself comes to Mary Magdalene and then to the remaining eleven apostles (sans Judas); and the three subsequent gospels (two of them, Matthew and Luke, depending heavily on Mark, embellishing and expanding its terse text for different audiences) attested to the miraculous reappearance of the crucified Jesus initiating the religious movement that would begin to take shape following his death.

The composite picture of the four gospels, including the later additions to Mark 16 and the more explicitly Christological Gospel of John, is obviously very well-known by modern Christians and non-Christians alike, permanently woven into the fiber of Western (if not world) culture and art. It is therefore worth momentarily pausing to consider what the last two millennia might have looked like if Mark 16:8 had been left as the final word in the sole narrative account of Jesus’s life. (Paul’s authentic letters were composed and circulated before Mark’s gospels, but none of them attempts to narrate the life of Jesus.) To do so is to allow oneself to think of Christianity’s eventual cultural dominance as something that was not at all inevitable, and not providentially foreordained. It might even open the way toward imagining Jesus and his small cluster of coeval followers with fresh eyes, lacking luminous halos and a clear sense of destiny, haunted by a profound uncertainty following the sudden death of their leader.

Garth Davis’s Mary Magdalene does not end the way Mark 16:8 does, but right up until its post-passion concluding scenes (more on those scenes below) it does capture, to some extent, this same mood of uncertainty and non-inevitability. Joaquin Phoenix’s Jesus feels, at once, recognizable in his general appearance and through some of his canonically reported deeds, yet also more human and conflicted than any Jesus we’ve seen onscreen before (including Willem Dafoe’s in The Last Temptation of Christ). This rough-around-the-edges characterization of Jesus is largely due to Phoenix’s superlative performance. It is also a serendipitous by-product of Davis and screenwriters Helena Edmundson and Philippa Goslett’s decision to square their focus on the figure of Mary Magdalene. This narrative approach works only moderately well as the feminist gesture that the director and writers seemingly intended—but it works very effectively in creating a Jesus who feels radically peripheral to his own story.

Of course, it is decidedly not uncommon for movies ostensibly about Jesus to actually do something other than tell the story of Jesus, in part because the survival of four separate and distinctly different canonical gospels ensured that there never could be one definitive account. To cite just a few prominent examples: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, true to its title, is a fairly faithful adaptation of Matthew, which has no better claim to ultimate veracity than do Mark or Luke. Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was adapted by Paul Schrader from a 1955 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, and, though a truly great film, it arguably has much more to do with Schrader and Scorsese’s respective spiritual doubts and frustrations than with those of Jesus as presented in any of the gospel texts. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ cherry-picks details from across the gospels, while also drawing from the purported visions of the modern German nun Anne Catherine Emmerich. As its title suggests, it is concerned almost exclusively with the rigorous passion of its protagonist, not the other, earlier parts of his life on earth. At the same time, Gibson’s terming of his condemned hero as “the Christ” presupposes the development of Christian dogma in such a way that the film—whatever its other faults or offenses—feels rigidly sealed off from the outset, quarantined against imaginative interpretation.

For its part, Mary Magdalene is, as noted above, focused more specifically on its titular character than on Jesus. It also dramatizes only the relatively brief period of Jesus’s mature ministry, not his earlier life. Like Mark’s gospel, Davis’s film does not include Jesus’s nativity or boyhood. Where Mark’s narrative begins with Jesus’s baptism, by another mysterious Jewish holy man, John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene opens in medias res, in the Galilean city of Magdala, with Jesus having already attracted a small group of devotees. The event that sets the plot in motion is Mary Magdalene (i.e., of Magdala) electing to join this entourage, and, against the wishes of her family, being baptized in the Sea of Galilee. After this, Mary becomes one of Jesus’s core apostles, not merely a marginal figure in his orbit. Indeed, Davis positions her as Jesus’s closest and must trusted confidante, surpassing even Peter (well played by Chiwetel Ejiofor).

Between its last images (of Mary setting forth to fulfill the mission with which Jesus has tasked her) and closing credits, Mary Magdalene provides its audience the following, briefly summarized information:

According to the Christian Gospels, Mary of Magdala was present at both Jesus’ death and burial; and is identified as the first witness to the resurrected Jesus.
In 591, Pope Gregory claimed that Mary of Magdala was a prostitute, a misconception which remains to this day.
In 2016, Mary of Magdala was formally identified by the Vatican as Apostle of the Apostles – their equal – and the first messenger of the resurrected Jesus.

None of this is necessarily inaccurate, though it is definitely simplified. To viewers (Christian or not) who are even moderately attuned to pop-culture and pop-history, none of it will come as much of a surprise.

The confusion regarding the identity of Mary Magdalene actually preceded Pope Gregory I (“the Great”) by a few centuries. The notion of her having possibly been a prostitute stemmed from the conflation of Mary Magdalene (never directly described as a prostitute or in similar terms) with both Mary of Bethany, who anoints Jesus’s feet at John 11:1–2, and an unnamed, vaguely described “woman that was in the city, a sinner,” who also anoints Jesus’s feet, at Luke 7:37–50. Such are the problems encountered when trying to “harmonize” four different, overlapping accounts of Jesus’s life, career, and the various people with whom he interacted. In the course of her long textual afterlife, Mary Magdalene was no doubt the victim of an ancient and medieval misogyny that was enduringly commonplace, but her misidentification as a prostitute was, in the first place, a consequence of imperfect exegetical analyses of some very challenging texts. Alas, “Mary” (or its ancient-language equivalents) was, like “Jesus”/“Yeshua,” an extremely common name in first-century A.D. Judea and Galilee. The same problem presents itself (even up to today) in sorting out mentions of “Jesus” in the writings of the Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus, whose Antiquities of the Jews is regarded as the sole surviving “non-Christian” text from the first century to seemingly attest to the execution of Jesus of Nazareth (i.e., the so-called Testimonium Flavanium, a brief passage in Josephus’s sprawling, twenty-book work, later recolored through the interpolations of medieval Christian scribes).

In the twenty-first century, Mary Magdalene’s reputation has been significantly rehabilitated, thanks less to the eventual Vatican pronouncement noted in the film than to a steady stream of popular history books and TV programs that claim to have uncovered the “real” Mary Magdalene (usually just by summarizing critical studies of the non-canonical Gnostic scriptures), and probably above all to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003). Brown’s bestseller swung the pendulum of opinion on Mary so far in the other direction that she was now not only a genuine apostle, or “apostle of the apostles,” but the secret wife of Jesus and the mother of his child. It was, in this overheated light, the misogynistic institutional Church, intent on preserving patriarchal power, that had deliberately framed her as a prostitute, while a small secret sect operating in the shadows concealed and guarded the still-enduring lineage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. By all informed accounts, this conspiratorial yarn is completely absurd, and in Brown’s defense, his book was unambiguously delivered as a work of pulpy historical fiction. But it was not interpreted as such by many of its rapt readers. Mistaken assumptions in reading and interpreting scriptural texts had first cast Mary Magdalene as the “sinful woman.” Now, more willful errors in the reading of a novel (and its many official and unofficial off-shoots) have recast her in an equally ill-attested role.

Consequently, it should not prove any real challenge for most viewers of Mary Magadalene to accept the film’s representation of its heroine as an apostle and not a prostitute. If anything, some readers of Brown’s novel may wonder why Davis’s film does not go even further in its depiction of Mary’s intimate relationship with Jesus. To its credit, the film does not push hard on this partially open door. Its Mary-Magdalene-as-chief-apostle is presented as one viable historical possibility, interesting to think with and empowering as a modern idea. This balance, between possibility and restraint, is perfectly struck in Mara’s performance, which is strong and deeply felt, yet unassuming and low-key—an ideal match for Phoenix’s Jesus.

The same observations can essentially be applied to the movie as a whole. The famous scriptural scenes that it stages—e.g., the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus casting the merchants out of the temple, the last supper, Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, even Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life—are presented as relatively subdued and resolutely human-scaled (Phoenix’s destruction of the temple plays like a spontaneous psychotic disturbance, not a righteous biblical event), often serene yet never grandiose or obvious. Davis and his actors’ approach renders these scenes somewhat less familiar, but more interesting and moving.

In his capsule review of The Passion of the Christ, Jonathan Rosenbaum lamented, "I assumed this drama about the last 12 hours of Jesus’s life would include something about his teachings, at least in flashback. But the Sermon on the Mount is reduced to two sound bites, and miracles and good works barely get a glance; director Mel Gibson stresses only cruelty and suffering, complete with slow motion and masochistic point-of-view shots." As a kind of antidote to Gibson’s suffering- and death-obsessed film, Davis’s spends remarkably little of its runtime on the crucifixion—and almost none on speculating about who was to blame for it. Included instead are a kind of greatest hits of Jesus’s canonically attested acts (if not his “teachings” in any doctrinal sense; for better and for worse, Mary Magdalene is light on theology). Filtered through the curious eyes of Rooney’s Mary Magdalene, these well-known hits play like the work of a good cover band, attempting to recover some Ur-versions of the songs in question, before their words, melodies, and rhythms became reified through mass-cultural osmosis.

Like The Passion of the Christ, Mary Magdalene was released during Lent (Lent 2018 in the UK and Australia, Lent 2019 in North America), clearly in the hopes that Christian moviegoers would slot the film in as part of their Easter season cultural-liturgical calendar. Yet, unlike Gibson’s film, Davis’s does not feel like it was made exclusively, or even primarily, for believing Christians. Nor, for that matter, does it resemble a glossy (wholly secular) Hollywood product, or a bold provocation like Scorsese’s Last Temptation. Mary Magdalene’s affect of catharsis and spiritual triumph is palpable, but mostly quite muted. It’s a film of ambivalent, uncertain feelings, even where (seemingly, on the page) it means to evoke a sense of commitment and destiny. Mara, Phoenix, and Co. do not play it that way. The resulting blurry in-between-ness makes for a fascinating and engaging film, but it may help to explain its apparent failure to “find an audience.”

It may also, at least partly (together with the unappealing optics of a delayed release, after Mary Magdalene switched hands from the Weinstein Company to IFC), account for the film’s tepid critical reception. While I’m impressed by Davis’s film, it’s not hard to understand the negative responses of some reviewers. For instance, the film’s musical score, by the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhansson (his last before his sudden death in 2018), is grating and overbearing so long as you resist it. Yet once (if) you accept its omnipresent histrionics, it contributes immensely to the film’s dreamlike atmosphere, its symphonic scope productively juxtaposed against the strikingly modest dimensions of the drama onscreen. Not unlike, say, Malick’s The New World, Mary Magdalene is a dream of history—specifically, in both cases, a pivotal and famous chapter in the world’s history—as strange and contingent. As in an actual dream, the names and relationships feel familiar, but the motions the named people are going through are peculiar, or different from how our conscious mind “remembers” them. In contrast to Malick’s film (and his work in general), which is perhaps overloaded with difficult philosophical and theological problems, Mary Magdalene is almost a tabula rasa—a blank screen conducive to projecting many different kinds of ideas, historical, religious/“spiritual,” or otherwise—at least up until its final few scenes.

Jesus’s resurrection—i.e., the events after Mark 16:8—is where Davis’s film “wakes up,” in more ways than one. Here, the film returns to a feminist message that it had suggested (rather more subtly) near its beginning in Galilee. The ideas put forth (namely, of women as key leaders within a more truly egalitarian Christianity avant la lettre) are certainly well-intentioned and admirable, but they have not been consistently, discernibly signposted throughout the intervening narrative. Heavy-handedly emphasizing this proto-feminist Mary Magdalene right at the film’s end feels a little jarring, particularly because this is a film that is in no other way heavy-handed or didactic.

Yet, these tonal issues notwithstanding, the final meeting between Jesus and Mary is so beautifully, gracefully acted that it mitigates against Davis’s narrative missteps. Phoenix’s disarmingly gentle and kind smile has never been used to more poignant effect than it is here, and it makes for a great contrast with the scowling, weary, or simply neutral expressions that Phoenix cycles between throughout much of the film. His Jesus is less the warm and benign Good Shepherd of Christian tradition than the highly enigmatic (if highly charismatic) messianic figure evoked in many modern studies of the “Historical Jesus.” Mara’s Mary Magdalene seems both consoled and surprised by her miraculously returned leader’s kind smile. It catches her off-guard, and she can’t help but smile too.

Mary Magdalene the film is remarkable for moments like this one, precisely because they also catch us off-guard, and they invite us to imagine outside the bounds of tradition, in much the same way as reading Mark’s gospel in isolation and stopping abruptly at its original terminus, 16:8. Though Mary Magdalene goes further than that ambiguous would-be ending, it may nonetheless be said that no representation of Jesus on film (of which I’m aware, at least) does a better job of facilitating this type of imaginative interaction.