Leave it to Joaquin Phoenix to play both Jesus Christ and the Joker in movies this year.
I’ve not yet seen Phoenix’s highly hyped portrayal of the killer clown, but there’s a chance it actually might not be as unsettling as his interpretation of Jesus as a brooding, deeply troubled, almost deranged figure who at times behaves as if he’s possessed.
It’s a fascinating albeit at times overwrought performance — and coupled with a script that seems to lose sight of its primary subject matter about halfway through the movie, the character of Mary Magdalene is overshadowed even though the movie is called “Mary Magdalene.”
Credit director Garth Davis (“Lion”) and screenwriters Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett for a biopic of Mary Magdalene that goes beyond the mythical shorthand of “She was a prostitute who changed her ways and became a loyal follower and close associate of Jesus Christ.”
As the end title cards tell us, “In 591, Pope Gregory claimed that Mary of Magdala was a prostitute, a misconception that remains to this day. … In 2016, Mary of Magdala was formally identified by the Vatican as ‘Apostle of the Apostles’ — the equal — and the first messenger of the resurrected Jesus.”
In this telling of the tale, Rooney Mara’s Mary Magdalene is an early feminist who resists her family’s efforts to marry her off to a local man, causes a stir and (in her father’s words) “brings shame upon the family” when she dares enter a house of worship on her own and not in the company of other women, and eventually leaves her home and her family to join the mysterious, enigmatic man known as Jesus as he embarks upon his final journey.
“What is it you long for?” Jesus asks Mary in his quietly unnerving cadence.
“To know God,” she eventually replies.
This is definitely an unusual depiction of the Gospels, with eclectic casting and dialogue spoken mostly in English, with occasional subtitles for certain scenes, e.g., the Last Supper.
Phoenix as Jesus looks like a 50ish bass player for a metal band that peaked in the 1990s. Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is British, plays Peter, while the French actor Tahar Rahim is Judas Iscariot and the New York-born Mara is Mary Magdalene. (Accents are thrown all over the place.)
It’s a great-looking film, with a shifting color palette. (Some scenes are so washed out, they’re close to being in black and white.) Things move at a glacial pace, and the soundtrack is sometimes jarringly anachronistic.
When Jesus brings Lazarus back from the dead, breathing heavily as if he’s transferring the gift of life to the corpse, it’s like a scene out of “Game of Thrones” — more supernatural/scary than inspirational/miraculous.
We follow as Mary follows Jesus, but by the time we reach the “cleansing of the Temple,” in which Jesus experiences a “holy anger” and expels the moneychangers and the merchants from his Father’s house, Mary gets lost in the crowd, literally and figuratively, as the narrative focuses on Jesus.
“Mary Magdalene” captures little of the joy and love Mary felt for Jesus, and the love he felt in return. Phoenix’ Jesus is too remote, too occupied with his inner battles, to forge a true connection with Mary. Even when he touches her face or looks her in the eye as he’s being crucified, what should be powerful, moving moments seem arbitrary.
This is a noble effort, but ultimately Mary Magdalene isn’t much less of a mystery than she was at the start of the journey.
IFC Films presents a film directed by Garth Davis and written by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett. Rated R (for some bloody and disturbing images). Running time: 120 minutes. Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.