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Herstory in the making

Philip Halcrow takes a view on the Mary Magdalene film

Jesus does not plan to do what is expected

THERE’S something about Mary in cinemas again. The new drama Mary Magdalene – released yesterday (Friday 16 March) – looks at the story of Jesus from the perspective of one of his female followers.

The film-makers say they drew on a variety of influences – including the Bible’s Gospel of Mark, generally thought to be the earliest of the Gospels, and a non-biblical story that was written possibly 100 years later, the Gospel of Mary.

One of the producers, Liz Watts, says: ‘We’re not proposing that this film is trying to be a theological or historical text of any kind. The story is up for interpretation, and it is a story that we’re telling.’

As the film’s story begins, Mary (Rooney Mara), a young woman in the small fishing village of Magdala, is causing her family concern. She is not interested in the marriage that they are trying to arrange for her. She is driven by a different desire. In the eyes of her family, she is being driven to distraction and is behaving like a woman possessed.

Eventually, a family member arranges for a man they call ‘the healer’ to visit her. Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) asks what she longs for. She is not sure, but thinks it must be to know God.

She is drawn to Jesus, who travels around, challenging people: ‘Will you align yourselves to the will of God?’ Defying her family, Mary joins Jesus’ disciples.

But among those disciples are differing views of what God’s will is and what Jesus means when he talks about God’s Kingdom. They debate strategy. ‘I didn’t know we were going to be soldiers,’ says Mary, who is not always warmly welcomed into the band of brothers.

In a land suffering the oppression of Roman occupation, the disciple Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) expects that the people ‘will rise’ when they see Jesus at work. Judas (Tahar Rahim) cannot understand why Jesus does not seem to be beginning the uprising he envisages. So he tries to force Jesus to act by arranging for him to be arrested.

Mary, however, gets the impression that Jesus does not plan to do what is expected. Perhaps people may have misunderstood him.

Jesus tells her: ‘You are my witness.’ It is what she becomes.

He undergoes a cruel death by crucifixion. But, days later, Mary encounters him again. And she believes she has realised what Jesus had meant when he talked about God’s Kingdom. She tells the other disciples: ‘The world will only change as we change.’

The film-makers may not be proposing that their story is ‘a theological or historical text’, but their version overlaps with the Bible in showing how Mary Magdalene, whatever her backstory, did become Jesus’ witness. While the four Christian Gospels vary in details about Jesus’ resurrection, all their accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb mention Mary Magdalene.

In the Bible, the resurrected Jesus gives Mary the message: ‘Do not be afraid’ (Matthew 28:10 New International Version).

What Mary Magdalene witnessed that morning changed everything. It showed that God’s love, his offer of forgiveness and his promise of a new kind of life could not be kept down.

And it is still giving people a new take on the world.

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