A subdued Joaquin Phoenix plays Jesus and Rooney Mara is the title character in “Mary Magdalene.”

A subdued Joaquin Phoenix plays Jesus and Rooney Mara is the title character in “Mary Magdalene.”

‘Mary Magdalene’ puts feminist spin on the biblical character

The film is sincere but could use more zip — and Joaquin Phoenix makes for a low-energy Jesus.

Mary Magdalene has really bounced around religious literature over the centuries: a furtive presence in the official gospels, a more prominent force in unofficial gospels, a saint or sinner in various tellings, and a barn-burning showstopper in “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

A new movie not only gives Mary a calm, sympathetic treatment, but finally puts her name in the title. The somber “Mary Magdalene” boasts a central character whose fixation on a Nazarene preacher borders on the fanatical.

As she’s proved in a career that’s veered from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” to “Carol,” Rooney Mara has just the right spacey obsessiveness for such a role. Opposite her is Joaquin Phoenix, as a scruffy, low-key Jesus. (The two actors are a couple in real life.)

“Mary Magdalene” sets its agenda early on: This is a feminist take. When we meet Mary in her little corner of the Middle East, she’s refusing to marry the man her father has chosen.

There’s only one explanation for her willfulness. Demons, obviously.

Meanwhile, thanks to the arrival of the traveling rabbi from Galilee, she has an excuse to leave home and tag along with Jesus and his followers.

The most interesting thing about the script by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett is the conflict that springs up between Mary and the other apostles. At first, she’s the Yoko of the group, coming along to spoil all the male bonding.

Later, her insistence on emphasizing a message of peace raises the ire of Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who demands a more aggressive form of spreading the new religion. To find out who won that debate, check the last 2,000 years of history.

The film depicts some familiar incidents from the gospels, but director Garth Davis (“Lion”) is more drawn to watching Jesus and Mary exchange flower-power sentiments while staring into each other’s eyes.

Those sentiments are nice, but they don’t build a lot of dramatic interest. The film overall suffers from sluggishness; you wonder whether the characters are getting enough iron in their diet.

It’s up to Judas (the excellent Tahar Rahim, star of the coincidentally titled masterpiece “A Prophet”) to provide a compelling subplot — the film suggests that his betrayal of Jesus was not an act of greed, but a strategic move meant to prod the preacher into action.

If the movie is too noble to indulge in sword-and-sandals melodrama, at least it has an evocative backdrop (the locations are Italian and Sicilian) and moody music (by Hildur Gudnadottir and the late, great Johann Johannsson, who scored “Sicario” and “Mandy”).

Rooney Mara’s stillness is her defining mode, and she’s very good at it; you completely believe Mary’s soulfulness.

Phoenix gives it a good try, using simplicity and sincerity to suggest the rabbi’s holiness. One thing Phoenix doesn’t suggest is a great orator — his gravelly delivery raises the question of how Jesus got anybody’s attention.

Phoenix plays the Joker in his next film, continuing his assault on the great roles of Western culture. Let’s hope that project has more spirit than this one.

“Mary Magdalene” (2½ stars)

A biblical tale, foregrounding the title character (Rooney Mara) as a willful, peace-loving apostle of Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix). The film is sincere but could use more zip, and Phoenix’s low-key performance makes you wonder how the rabbi inspired such a movement.

Rating: R, for violence

Opening Friday: Varsity

Talk to us

More in Life

Sierra Wilkin wipes down pens for customers during the opening day of Cama Beach Cafe on Friday, May 22, 2020 in Camano Island, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Shutdown hit Camano cafe hard, but owner’s used to a challenge

When Cama Beach Cafe was forced to close, Donna King’s yoga-derived sense of calm helped her cope.

Quarantine days: Some of our favorite photos by Herald readers

Staying at home all day has given Snohomish County shutterbugs plenty of time to take pictures.

Columbia Valley wineries look back on ‘St. Helens Vintage’

Growers Mike Sauer and Dick Boushey and winemaker Rob Griffin shared their recollections of the eruption.

Gumbo made without shellfish reminds her of South Carolina

This one-pot gumbo is made with chicken, spicy andouille sausage and the holy trinity of Creole cooking.

Whip up homemade mayo for the best sandwiches and salads

Mayonnaise from scratch has a silkier texture and fresher flavor than the jarred stuff.

Want a bright start to each day? Bake this yogurt lemon loaf

Orange blossom water gives this cake a lovely floral scent and a unique citrus aroma.

An easy-to-make taco that’s good for you any time of day

Here’s a vegetarian taco made with earthy-tasting soft whole wheat tortillas that fold easily.

She reorganized the pantry to reduce food waste at home

With the help of a label maker, this mom is reorganizing foods by expiration date instead of type.

Rick Steves on foraging Europe’s markets for the perfect picnic

Your tummy will be full of delicious food and your mind will be stuffed with tasty memories.

Most Read