Director Garth Davis labors, in the biblical drama “Mary Magdalene,” to undo what Pope Gregory I started a millennium and a half ago: To win back the good name of Jesus’ most wrongly besmirched apostle.
It was Gregory, back in 591, who first referred to the woman from the coastal Galilee town of Magdala as a prostitute — because patriarchy. Most depictions since have run with that, suggesting that Mary Magdalene was a slatternly woman whose sins were washed clean by following Jesus. (Even the seemingly progressive “Jesus Christ Superstar” played with this trope, giving Mary the solo “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”)
Davis, who directed Dev Patel in “Lion,” and screenwriters Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett reclaim Mary’s good name from the beginning. They show Mary (played by Rooney Mara) as a thoughtful young woman in Magdala, calming talking a young woman through a difficult childbirth, and sitting in the temple for Shabbat praying as intently as the men.
This Mary is a seeker, not satisfied with the lot women have been dealt in Judea in 33 CE. She declines a marriage proposal by a widow in the village, angering her brother Daniel (Denis Ménochet) and worrying her father (Tchéky Karyo). When a traveling rabbi and his band of acolytes come through town, she becomes intrigued by his message and decides to join them.
Mary becomes a close confident of this rabbi, played by Joaquin Phoenix. She’s touched by his talk of the kingdom of God, and how it will be attained through peace and kindness, not force and anger as Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Judas (Tahar Rahim) and the other followers expect will come.
It’s not until the group reaches Jerusalem that anyone mentions this rabbi’s name: Jesus of Nazareth.
There are few who don’t know what happens next, and Davis stages those familiar icons — the moneychangers, the breaking of bread, Judas’ kiss, the arrest at Gesthemane, the walk to Calvary, the crucifixion, the empty tomb — with spartan simplicity and elegance in the rocky terrain of southern Italy (which doubles for the Holy Land). If there’s a twist, it’s what happens when Mary tells Peter and the apostles what she knows, and how they react to it.
Phoenix makes a rugged Jesus, weathered and worn by the path he knows he must walk. His scenes with Mara are beautiful, showing an understanding between rabbi and student that often needs no words.
In the movie’s slower passages — and there are a few of those — it’s Mara’s performance that carries “Mary Magdalene” through. She gives a quietly forceful performance of Mary as Jesus’ first and best apostle (an honor the Vatican finally gave her in 2016), and gives believers something to think about on the week before Easter Sunday.
Opens Friday, April 12, in theaters nationwide, including Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy), Megaplex at The District (South Jordan), and Megaplex Legacy Crossing (Centerville). Rated R for some bloody and disturbing images. Running time: 120 minutes.