When we go to the cinema, nine times out of ten, our emotional baggage gets left at the door. We allow ourselves to forget it, happy to escape for a couple of hours. But certain types of films demand our own personal input, whether it’s an issue close to our hearts or close to the bone. It’s also true of religious movies, where our faith brings to bear how we see and absorb it. Watching director Garth Davis’ new interpretation of MARY MAGDALENE was no different.
The film stars Rooney Mara as Mary and follows her personal journey as an apostle of Jesus (played by Joaquin Phoenix). Since being declared ‘Apostle of the Apostles’ by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in Rome in 2016, the Church’s view has changed, and she is no longer cast in the role of prostitute – one that Pope Gregory bestowed on her in his homily is 592 A.D. and which had prevailed for centuries. The film therefore treats her with reverence and adoration. A woman way ahead of her time as she defied society and her family, to follow a man and a faith she believed in.
I played Mary once when I was a kid. Every Good Friday, our local church put on a play of the Stations of The Cross and I have a distinct memory of washing Jesus’ feet. It was a coveted role. There weren’t many female parts, just the two Marys’ or one of the by-standers along the way. I didn’t know much about her. None of us did really. I was vaguely aware of her tainted reputation, but I didn’t really know what it meant. It didn’t really matter. It was a good part to get. Mary was part of his story – ‘the greatest story ever told’. I can still remember the feel of the piece of cloth draped over my head, and the simple tunic my mother had thrown together on the sewing machine.
I was a religious child. Roman Catholic. I sang in the choir every Sunday. Every night before I went to sleep I would pray copious Our Father’s and Hail Mary’s. Some nights I counted them. One hundred. Good. My faith was strong. As the years passed, things inevitably changed. I moved on to secondary school and left the choir, distracted by other things and slowly I began to pull away from the church. Like my friends, the relevance of the institution faded as we got older and became more aware of the world around us. Religion became more about me and God, rather than me and the Church. I preferred a more spiritual tack and that worked for me.
Now, some thirty years later, my faith has faded altogether. The more time I spend in the world, the more assured I am that life is not about the promise of eternal salvation but the life I have right now. There is no after party. No velvet rope unhooked to let you in. Our beliefs or lack of, when it comes to our faith is no-one’s business but our own. It is not for us to judge others.
What Garth Davis does so well with the film is make it a personal portrait of a woman whose path just happens to be religion. This is not a film to preach to anyone. It takes a quiet soulful approach; one for you to take away from it what you want. For me, it’s about freedom. Freedom as a woman, as a thinker, as a believer in what path it is you choose to follow in life. And in that, Mary is a hero. An emancipated woman with conviction who leaves behind her camouflaged existence on the stony shores of Galilee. This is not the Technicolor biblical epics of old with the bluest skies and golden hues – of perfect hair and vibrant clothes. Even Jesus looks dishevelled. It’s a human story told in muted tones, highlighting a woman with such courage and devotion that you can’t help but admire her, religious or not.
Mary Magdalene is in Irish cinemas from March 16th.