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‘Mary Magdalene’ Gives Contemporary, Feminist Spin on Religious Story

screenshot of Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene
Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix star in Mary Magdalene. (Photo: YouTube screenshot)

Director Garth Davis allegedly focuses on the feminine influences of Mary Magdalene, but the film has also been met with controversy because neither lead actors are of Middle Eastern descent.

The new movie Mary Magdalene is reportedly adding a contemporary and feminist spin to the famous Bible story about a Jewish woman who traveled with Jesus Christ and witnessed his crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

Directed by Garth Davis (Lion), the film stars Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) as the titular character and Joaquin Phoenix (Her, Walk the Line) as Jesus. Both actors have spiritual backgrounds: Mara was raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools; Phoenix wasn’t raised Christian but considers himself “spiritual”.

Historically, the Bible and religious followers have not always been kind to Mary Magdalene’s legacy. In the year 591, Pope Gregory the Great alleged that she was a prostitute, which the film disputes. Her relationship with Jesus has been steeped in controversy due to her gender and lack of marriage, and she was accused of being “possessed by demons” for her unorthodox lifestyle.

Eventually, Mary came to be regarded by many as a feminist trailblazer for her strength and independence of character — she essentially left her life behind to follow Jesus. It’s also been speculated that she was the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection.

She is now considered a saint by many religious denominations including the Catholic Church (which didn’t cease calling her “sinful” until 1969), as well by the Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches.

In the new film, Mary refuses to marry and instead follows a traveling rabbi, Jesus. Along the way, she stands firm against resistance to her guidance and influence over Jesus by the apostle Peter, for instance.

“She does think about the injustices and unfairness between men and women,” actress Mara said. “She was also fiercely brave to leave everything behind and go follow a group of men.”

“It was incredible what a significant role [Mary] played in this movement,” Phoenix added. “You realize how much the women in this story had been dismissed and disregarded.”

Director Garth Davis allegedly focuses on the feminine influences of Mary Magdalene, instead of the more traditionally masculine characters, in this new retelling of Jesus’ story.

Davis said he felt “disconnected” from church while growing up in Australia. He sought spirituality outside of organized religion instead, which is an underlying theme in Mary Magdalene. Davis considers the new film “spiritual” rather than religious.

The film has also been met with controversy because neither lead actors are of Middle Eastern descent. However, Davis alleged that this was part of his contemporary interpretation, adding that the cast consists of various ethnicities overall.

“The casting was an opportunity to modernize the story and make it reflect the multicultural world we’re living in now,” Davis said. “And ultimately, the most important thing for me was finding actors who captured those characters in a soulful and emotional way.”

A huge segment of the U.S. population is religious, like everywhere else in this world. A movie like Mary Magdalene, with its renewed interpretation, can perhaps expand the truth and appeal of its subject matter for new and upcoming generations.

Mary Magdalene premiered in theaters April 12 and will be available on digital platforms on April 19.

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