We may not have a lot of information about Mary of Magdala, but what we have paints her as a fascinating New Testament character. We are told that she was once possessed by seven demons. We are told she was part of the entourage that traveled with Jesus of Nazareth during his itinerant ministry. We know she was present at the crucifixion. This is significant since we are told that the disciples had deserted Jesus. We are told that she was one of, if not, the first to discover the empty tomb and learn of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We are told she relayed the good news of Easter morning to the disciples.
Though not a lot of information, this qualifies her as a significant player in the gospel story. Significant enough that Hollywood has made a movie about her, titled simply, Mary Magdalene. I am aware that Hollywood often receives a lot of criticism for the way it handles biblical material. Yet, I am always glad when it takes a stab at it. Add to that, a character like Mary presents a great opportunity to tell an adventurous story about a first century female disciple. The prospects for a movie like this are exciting.
One of the benefits of quarantine is the opportunity to watch movies and I recently had opportunity to watch Mary Magdalene. She is correctly (if she is indeed from Magdala) portrayed as being from a fishing village and the movie shows her to be an active participant in the fishing industry. She is a strong character and this shows in her abilities as midwife, her refusal to marry, and her refusal to abide by the religious protocols. (The Mary of the movie sometimes comes across more like a twenty-first century American girl than a first century Jewish girl). This betrays that the movie’s good intentions may be overdone. While we can applaud the way women in the ministry of Jesus are highlighted, it comes across as artificial when one of the strategies to do this is to make the male disciples appear even more clueless than they already are.
While the gospel makes clear that Mary had once been possessed by seven demons, the movie passes this off as a false accusation. It is simply something said about Mary because she was not compliant with expectations of society. Interestingly, the method to rid her of these demons is to immerse her in some ritual that resembles a forced baptism. Interestingly, both Jesus and Mary baptize disciples in this movie (uncertain at best).
Jesus does give slivers of the gospel message, including miracles. But there is no passion, no fire in his belly, no eschatology. Aside from the miracles, it is unknown why anyone would be willing to give up everything to follow this Jesus. Instead, this movie makes no doubt about the fact Mary is the star. She is portrayed as not only the most important disciple, but almost as if she is Jesus’s personal consultant or therapist. For much of the movie it seems that Jesus is simply furniture in order to tell Mary’s important story.
A more serious effort to explore what made Mary who she is would require a more serious look at the New Testament gospels. I wish we could have seen her gratefulness and the gratefulness of her community for being loosed from demons. I wish we could have seen some creative representations of the role she, Joanna, Susanna and other women followers played. I wish we could have seen the emotion of her presence at the cross or at the cemetery on Sunday morning. Instead, her resurrection encounter with Jesus came across as just another conversation. I wish we could have seen the joy when she reported the empty tomb to the other disciples. Instead it felt like, once again, she was Peter’s mentor.
I find myself wishing for so much more. Far from adventurous or exciting, I started wondering if it would ever end. This movie fails miserably in its characterization of Mary (not to mention a mischaracterization of Jesus). It is a current trend to misrepresent Mary (see The Da Vinci Code). This is unfortunate because the story of the Mary we find in the gospels deserves to be told.