As the first Jesus movie to dig deeply into just how thoroughly the disciples misunderstood Jesus' mission to be primarily geopolitical in nature, Mary Magdalene not coincidentally features my favorite cinematic depiction of Judas Iscariot in Tahar Rahim's guileless, smiling true believer. Unfortunately, none of the other characters are drawn with the same amount of depth. Considering that this film is ostensibly a long-overdue character study of Jesus' most misunderstood follower, Rooney Mara's Mary is a particular disappointment: a serene presence rather than a human being with personality and interiority. Jesus Christ is supposed to have changed the lives of everyone he met, but he effects no change in Mary. She begins the film as a zealous person of faith, and she ends the film that way, with no apparent moments of doubt or epiphany. Seemingly the only benefit she receives from Jesus is a one-way ticket out of the patriarchal prison of her hometown.
Indeed, Mary Magdalene seems frustratingly determined to shield its protagonist from anything that would disturb her beatific certainty regarding her own purpose or her understanding of who Jesus is. Screenwriters Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett have her sleep through the struggle at Gethsemane and the rolling aside of the tombstone on Easter morning. She is rendered unconscious for the entirety of Jesus' trial. When she finally catches up with the bloodied Messiah on the Via Dolorosa, she exhibits less consternation than she showed earlier over her arranged marriage. For a film with so much to say about women's vital importance in the Kingdom of God, the woman at its center is a curiously inert character.
Part of this is by design rather than clumsiness. As "the apostle of the apostles," as Pope Francis has so elegantly put it, Mary Magdalene is set up here as a foil to the twelve male members of Jesus' entourage. Where they are myopically focused on earthly matters, she is prescient about the significance of Jesus' mission; where they are deaf to the true meaning of Jesus' teachings, she perspicaciously puts those teachings into action. She has been obliged her whole life to maintain a thoughtful silence while the men around her pontificate endlessly. Garth Davis deftly shows how that stifling environment has equipped Mary and the women around her to understand the Kingdom at a level that is inaccessible to their male peers. The last shall be first.
But in drawing such a stark contrast between Mary and the Twelve, Davis encounters a problem. A person of such formidable certitude, impervious to error or religious doubt or even discouragement, makes a fine icon but an unengaging protagonist. Worse, it raises the question of why Jesus is even necessary for Mary Magdalene's journey. Certainly, the audience is meant to assume that Mary experiences some growth through her encounter with Christ, but we never see it. She is the unceasingly faithful bulwark for Jesus' disciples and even Jesus himself, the Gallant to Simon Peter's Goofus. Mary is spared the foolishness and cowardice displayed by Peter, but she is also denied the heart-stirring moment when Peter experiences a revelation and is transformed: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."