Australian director Garth Davis has not taken the easy route for his second film: a revisionist biblical story about Mary Magdalene that debunks the myth — apparently spread by Pope Gregory in the sixth century — that she was a prostitute reborn in Christ.
Casting off the medieval slut shaming frees up space for more a nuanced character study, but the film doesn’t entirely realise its potential.
The screenplay by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett proposes Mary as a young woman suffocated by the expectations of patriarchal village life — marriage, motherhood — who finds a second family in Jesus and his entourage.
She’s also the first person to truly understand the spiritual metaphor of his message: not a worldly revolution, but a revolution from within.
The opening sequences of life in her small fishing community crescendos into a traumatic exorcism before the film switches register into a Biblical road movie and Mary swaps her real family for the surrogate one of the apostles.
The landscape is one of the film’s most striking elements.
Davis teams up with cinematographer and fellow Australian Greig Fraser again to transform the shimmering seas and bleached white hills of southern Italy into a convincing depiction of the Holy Land, reflecting the changing hues of sunlight at different times of the day.
The other key element, of course, is Rooney Mara, with a presence that’s magnetic, though sometimes enigmatic to the point of impenetrable.
Cast opposite Joaquin Phoenix’s wild-eyed, troubled Jesus, she’s a solemn character who watches silently and tries to penetrate the surface of things.
If this was a romance, and in a metaphorical sense it is, you’d say she was falling in love with him.
But of course, the chemistry between them remains a subtext, and the film searches for dramatic friction points elsewhere.
Partly, it’s a chronicle of the last days of a movement in its springtime, as the apostles begin to argue and express their doubts, alert to the fact that their spiritual guide is troubled by what he sees in his and their future.
The performances here are uniformly good, with Chiwetel Ejiofor an impassioned Peter and Tahar Rahim a scene-stealing Judas who’s all the more tragic because he’s so likeable.
But Mara, despite her best efforts, remains at arms’ length.
Her transition from village girl to 13th apostle represents an inner journey across an intellectual and spiritual gulf that the film struggles to relate, just as her alabaster skin never quite convinces you she’s ever slept rough in her life.
The film lacks the incendiary, profane zest of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, or the sand-between-your-toes grit of Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew.
At its worst, it drifts into the picturesque, though it would be unfair to say Davis ever loses his way entirely. At times the film is bold and cuts through with some arresting images.
A Roman legionnaire on horseback who appears momentarily atop a hill is a concise, foreboding reminder of the volatility of this world, while some artfully smudged camera work towards the film’s climax evokes the atmosphere of a hallucination (though you wonder what the film might have been if it had embraced this psychedelic element more enthusiastically throughout).
It’s admirable that a young director in the wake of Oscars success has chosen such a risky follow up, and though the result isn’t completely satisfying, the attempt is worthwhile.
Davis displays talent with actors and tone, and if his heroine’s deeper truth remains slightly out of focus, the film deserves a qualified recommendation.