Motion Pictures, Mary Magdalene and #MeToo

I find it sadly ironic that Garth Davis’s exquisite 2018 film Mary Magdalene became an unexpected victim in the #MeToo movement which emerged following the New York Times article on movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s purported long history of sexual harassment and abuse. Set to be distributed by The Weinstein Company for Easter 2018, the film was subsequently shelved for release in the US following the company’s bankruptcy. Thankfully, I was able to see it during its one-week run in the local cinema in St Andrews.

A disappointed Davis said in an interview in March 2018, ‘Our film celebrates everything that is the antithesis of what’s happened [with Weinstein] … So my main focus is just to celebrate Mary and get her story out into the world. That’s my absolute mission’. [1] Starring Rooney Mara as Mary and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus, Mary Magdalene is a fresh, affecting cinematic view on the apostle to the apostles. Her tarnished reputation throughout church history thus finds a parallel in Magdalene’s filmic portrayals within the subgenre of Jesus films.

What do we actually know about Mary Magdalene? In her book, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor, Susan Haskins notes the following four aspects that we know for certain from the four Gospel accounts: ‘that Mary Magdalen was one of Christ’s female followers, was present at his crucifixion, was a witness – indeed, according to the gospel of St John, the witness – of his resurrection, and was the first to be charged with the supreme ministry, that of proclaiming the Christian message’. [2] Yet following a sixth-century (mis)interpretation from Pope Gregory I conflating her with the anonymous woman of ‘sinful repute’ in Luke 7, Mary Magdalene has been commonly portrayed as a lusty demon-possessed prostitute, a woman known more for her sin than her sanctification.

The cinematic depictions often follow this ‘repentant whore’ tradition. Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epic The King of Kings (1927) opens with the title cards telling us about Mary Magdalene the ‘beautiful courtesan’ who ‘laughed alike at God and Man’. In typical DeMille gratuitousness, Mary sensually embraces a real-life leopard and has a carriage drawn by zebras. She is portrayed as having an unfulfilling romantic relationship with Judas, which is her introduction to Jesus, who casts out seven feminine ‘devils’ in a dramatic sequence (which are identified as the Seven Deadly Sins in the film).

The prostitute myth is just as striking in two 1970s Jesus films. In Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977), Anne Bancroft portrays Mary Magdalene with a world-weary eroticism; she’s older, bitterly resolved to her life of isolation and social ridicule. Her witness of Christ’s miraculous feeding of the 5000 prompts her repentance—she anoints Christ’s feet with ointment and wipes them with her hair, prompting Jesus to respond: ‘Daughter your sins—and I know that they are many—are forgiven you’. In a similar vein, Magdalene’s song ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ in Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) is all about her uncertainty as how to relate to this godly man without it turning sexual. She croons over the sleeping Jesus: ‘And I’ve had so many men before / In very many ways / He’s just one more’.

Perhaps the most controversial and radical portrayal of Magdalene’s sexuality is within Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Jesus (Willem Dafoe) has a semi-romantic relationship with the prostitute Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey), ultimately saving her from a crowd gathered to stone her for working on the Sabbath (as a prostitute no less). This narrative choice also conflates Magdalene with the unnamed woman caught in adultery from John 8. The film features a climactic fantasy sequence with Jesus coming down from the cross to marry Mary Magdalene and have a child with her. When Magdalene suddenly dies, Jesus takes the sisters Mary and Martha as his second wives in what Lloyd Baugh calls ‘a relaxed ménage a trois’ [3] before Judas (Harvey Keitel) confronts Jesus about his mission and the dream sequence concludes.

Mary Magdalene—indeed nearly all of the female characters—are portrayed as either secondary tropes or trollops to the male-centric narrative, and Magdalene certainly does not come across as saintly. It was scandalous thirty years ago; it’s scandalous now.

Less controversially, the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus is another common depiction in cinema. The two are often contrasted in attire and character, with Magdalene frequently dressed in gaudy or ostentatious clothes and viewed as immodest or sensual, while Mary is shown in simple, modest clothes and a head covering. So it’s interesting that in Garth Davis’s Mary Magdalene, the two women are more similar than different, with the motherly Mary (Irit Sheleg) recognizing and affirming the love Magdalene has for her son, even as Mary warns her that he’ll break her heart. Rooney Mara’s Magdalene is demure and modest, a fervently religious Jew who takes her relationship with God very seriously. Yet she’s also imbued with a quiet strength which unwittingly threatens others around her.

Living life as a midwife in the seaside town Magdala, she is urged by her siblings to follow tradition and marry. The young woman is unintentionally subversive by simply being herself and desiring a life of singleness. Pious and pensive, she is more interested in developing her relationship with God than serving as a man’s child-bearer. After she rejects a marriage proposal, Mary’s family stages a spiritual intervention on her behalf, dragging her into the nearby sea and essentially waterboarding her in an unsettling exorcism sequence. Wrapped up in tradition, their good intentions end up hurting more than helping, leaving the wounded woman feeling isolated and abandoned.

Mary’s life is upended in the best way when a traveling healer named Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) is invited by one of her brothers to rid her of the supposed demons. In a quiet conversation, she lets her guard down enough to open up about her spiritual vocation and desires. He calmly tells her with a knowing smile, ‘There are no demons here’. It’s a moment of deep affirmation, one she hasn’t received before. Indeed, this is a woman who has been physically, socially, and emotionally dismissed or abused, and someone is finally willing to listen to her.

It’s her own #MeToo moment: a person listened and believed her story, and it changes everything. The power structures and abuse no longer reign over her. She’s intrigued by this man, perhaps the first man she has perceived as being safe even as his kingdom-minded message remains radical and politically charged. She leaves everything to follow him on his mission of love and justice, joining his disciples as a fellow apostle. Her family tries to physically fight the disciples to take her back, but they are fended off as Mary is baptized by Jesus in an affecting vision of redemption, reversing the earlier waterboarding scene with baptismal restoration.

Though she becomes one of the traveling apostles with Jesus, Mary Magdalene isn’t wholly embraced by all the men, particularly Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is wary of a single woman’s presence in their band of brothers. That Mary has a silent special connection with Jesus rankles the others even further; the pair are the kind of people who sit on beautiful hillsides and stare off wistfully into the distance, whispering semi-philosophical/spiritual questions to each other in their platonic-yet-intimate relationship. ‘Is that what it feels like to be one with God?’ Mary asks Jesus in one of their hillside conversations. His eyes wide and wet with tears, he responds with warmth and wonder, ‘No one has ever asked me how it feels’. She smiles back, her eyes also glistening. Phoenix’s Jesus comes across as part wide-eyed guru, part tormented artistic soul; Mara’s Magdalene is seen as his muse, perhaps even containing a strength he doesn’t have. She’s portrayed as the one who really ‘gets it’ while the other apostles continue to fumble and fear.

Indeed, this is truly her story, her film—even the passion sequence is given short shrift as the narrative focuses on Magdalene’s emotional response to the trial, though the resurrection is portrayed even as Mary’s role as ‘apostle to the apostles’ is emphasized.

It’s tragic (although not surprising) that a story of a woman as a spiritual leader and disciple of Christ remains silenced, both within the film by the apostles, and outside the film due to the Weinstein collapse and lack of distribution. The filmic Mary is mostly chastised by the apostles, who still regard her as a threat and social outsider even when she comes to proclaim the good news about the resurrection. ‘I will not remain silent’, Mary firmly tells them as the film concludes, embracing her apostolic vocation to share the message of Christ with others.

In this, Mary Magdalene serves as a cinematic call for men in positions of power to adopt a posture of listening so that women with pastoral, academic, and leadership vocations may be heard. As her feast day approaches on 22 July, we would do well to honour Saint Mary Magdalene as the apostle to the apostles instead of a woman of ill repute. As Catherine O’Brien puts it, ‘In the wake of feminist and post-feminist arguments, the restoration of Magdalene to her status as a disciple of Jesus (rather than a reformed prostitute) is one step in the right direction’. [4]


[1] Dan Jolin, ‘Garth Davis on how the “Mary Magdalene” team dealt with the Weinstein fall-out’, Screen Daily, 5 March 2018, https://www.screendaily.com/features/garth-davis-on-how-the-mary-magdalene-team-dealt-with-the-weinstein-fall-out/5127139.article.
[2] Susan Haskins, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor(London: HarperCollins, 1993), 3-4.
[3] Lloyd Baugh, Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film(Lanham: Sheed & Ward, 1997), 68.
[4] Catherine O’Brien, ‘Women in the Cinematic Gospels’, in The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of the Bible and Its Reception in Film, Part 2. Edited by Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016), 459.

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