Mary Magdalene - A Picturesque Journey to an Undisclosed Location
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a pre-screening of the new movie Mary Magdalene. (Special thanks for this opportunity to Heritage Films and Transmission Films). I must admit that I did not have high expectations for the film since I expected it to be more non-historical and sexually-charged drivel like that of the Dan Brown novels. Thankfully, the film steered clear of such obvious historical inaccuracies and was a pleasant surprise in many ways. After attending a pre-screening, I was able to view the newly edited release as well and be involved in a panel discussion on the film afterwards. (In addition to Heritage and Transmission Films I must thank Reel Dialogue and City Bible Forum for these opportunities). What follows is a limited critique and evaluation on the film (no real spoilers).
It should be admitted at the outset that the director and writer had their work cut out for them since Mary Magdalene is only mentioned in a few short verses in the New Testament and what is known about her interactions with Jesus only cover a few basic facts. Since this is the case, it would be a difficult task for anyone to make a full-length movie that is both historically accurate and compelling given so little information. As a point of interest, I have included a list of all the verses in the New Testament mentioning Mary Magdalene at the end of this post.
Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the movie was its scenic nature. I have found that most movies set in Israel during this time period fail to catch the beauty and ruggedness of the landscape. Mary Magdalene captured these elements better than any I have ever seen. Especially for anyone who enjoys studying the New Testament and the land known as the “birthplace of Christianity,” this element of the film was second to none. The depiction of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount caught the attention of the audience and the attention to detail by the director is admirable. The various entrances to the temple, the situation of the temple in Jerusalem and the noisy nature of the sacrifices was all recreated with great attention to detail.
Sadly, this eye for detail did not carry through into all aspects of the movie. The beginning portion of the film was intriguing as they sought to give Mary Magdalene a backstory. But it came off suggesting that the women did all the work in the culture while the men were superstitious and simply walked around praying and going to hear traveling teachers all day long. This was especially frustrating in a movie that sought to accurately portray the role of a woman (Mary) as one of Jesus’ followers but failed to accurately capture the role of women in that time and society in general.
But beyond these detail elements three particular elements caught my attention. The first was the use of silence in the film. This film is not action-packed by any means. Jesus is often silent as is Mary and others. It reminds me of a statement I heard some years ago: “the most valuable currency is undivided attention” – everyone wants it but no one gives it. At this point the movie excels as it captures the undivided attention that Jesus gave others and the undivided attention someone like Mary had for Jesus. In a society and culture with ceaseless noise and overflowing words, it was refreshing to see silence used to such effect. It seems fair to say that all humans would wish to have a friend like Jesus who would truly listen. Jesus spoke of important issues and asked deep, heart-felt questions that are difficult to consider without silence and serious thought.
The second element that caught my attention concerned the role of women in Jesus’ ministry. For a movie that sought to emphasize an often-ignored aspect of Jesus’ ministry, I am not sure that the movie succeeded at this point. While the film did a fine job depicting Mary’s interactions with Jesus, it almost completely ignored his interactions with any other women – other than brief interactions with His mother Mary. I found this odd as many of the verses that mention Mary Magdalene in the New Testament only mention her in conjunction with other women who followed Jesus, financed His ministry and witnessed his death and resurrection. Furthermore, in trying to emphasize the role of Mary, which was countercultural, the movie failed to show the countercultural ways in which Jesus treated children, soldier, slaves and Samaritans. In essence, I thought the film made the same mistake it was critiquing – only emphasizing one aspect at the expense of all the rest.
The final element was what Jesus did and said in this film. Of the few words that Jesus uttered in this film, only a few of them were accurate. Having said that, many of the actions of Jesus in this film were true and accurate – his teaching and healing ministry, His betrayal by Judas, death on a cross and resurrection. But there was one glaring omission through it all – the reason why He did all these things. At the conclusion of the film, the audience is left wondering the purpose of it all and whether or not Jesus accomplished anything by His actions. One is also left uncertain if Jesus is actually God or simply a religious guru. I think these shortcomings not only show historical inaccuracies compared to the New Testament gospels, but also rob the story of the desired and vital conclusion. Mary is only known in history in relationship to Jesus – who He was and what He did. So, it makes sense that her story can only be fully told when it is properly related to His story. The movie failed to do this because the movie failed to understand and capture who Jesus was and is and what He accomplished by His words and actions. If you are wondering what that is, Jesus says it best:
“14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
If you enjoy a slower movie that makes you think a bit, this is an excellent movie for you. However, if you wish everything to be historically accurate and true to the gospel accounts, then this film will not meet your expectations. But this does not need to be a deterrent. For those who are interested in Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and who are interested in the land of Israel during the time of Jesus, this movie is well-worth watching. More than anything, I would suggest using the movie as a springboard to read one of the gospel accounts again or for the first time. If you are really wanting to see how Jesus interacted with outcasts like Mary Magdalene, let me suggest you start with the gospel of Luke.
References to Mary of Magdala During Jesus' Ministry
Luke 8:1-3: Afterward [Jesus] journeyed from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources.
References to Mary of Magdala During the Crucifixion
Mark 15:40: There were also some women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the Less and Joses, and Salome.
Matthew 27:56: Among them was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
John 19:25: But standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, and His mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.
References to Mary of Magdala After the Crucifixion
Mark 15:47: Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses were looking on to see where He was laid.
Matthew 27:61: And Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the grave.
Matthew 28:1: Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave.
Mark 16:1: When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him.
References to Mary of Magdala At the Resurrection
John 20:1: Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb.
Mark 16:9: Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons.
John 20:18: Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord," and that He had said these things to her.
Luke 24: But at daybreak on the first day of the week [the women] took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb; but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were puzzling over this, behold, two men in dazzling garments appeared to them. They were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground. They said to them, "Why do you seek the living one among the dead? He is not here, but he has been raised. Remember what he said to you while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified and rise on the third day." And they remembered his words. Then they returned from the tomb and announced all these things to the eleven and to all the others. The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James; the others who accompanied them also told this to the apostles, but their story seemed like nonsense and they did not believe them.
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 As examples, see the verses located at the end of this post.