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‘Mary Magdalene’ Sounds Like an Interesting Take on Jesus’s Crucifixion

Rooney Mara to take on Christianity’s most important and most debated female figure.
Mary Magdalene Rooney Mara
By  · Published on November 29th, 2017

Rooney Mara to take on Christianity’s most important and most debated female figure.

Monday, Universal released the plot details for Garth Davis’s upcoming biblical drama, Mary Magdalene. Starring Rooney Mara as Mary and Joaquin Pheonix as Jesus Christ, the film will look at Mary’s debated involvement with Jesus before and after his crucifixion. The synopsis released seems like a straightforward portrayal of Mary. However, like the biblical dramas before this, that can still cause quite the controversy.

After the Harvey Weinstein scandal, his production company pushed back the release of Mary Magdalene from November 24, 2017, to until March 30th of next year. The only other information about the film until now were set pictures surfacing, featuring Rooney Mara smoking a cigarette in her Mary costume. Monday brought the official synopsis below and an exclusive still of Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene.

Set in the Holy Land in the first century C.E., a young woman leaves her small fishing village and traditional family behind to join a radical new social movement. At its head is a charismatic leader, Jesus of Nazareth, who promises that the world is changing. Mary is searching for a new way of living, and an authenticity that is denied her by the rigid hierarchies of the day. As the notoriety of the group spread and more are drawn to follow Jesus’ inspirational message, Mary’s spiritual journey places her at the heart of a story that will lead to the capital city of Jerusalem, where she must confront the reality of Jesus’ destiny and her own place within it.

The film takes on a protagonist that has sparse factual history but attempts to present what we do know about Mary Magdalene as a coherent and compelling story of faith and heroism. In the Bible, Mary is present for the crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection. Being the first person to witness the absence of Jesus’s body in his tomb, Mary is coveted as one of the most important women in the Bible.

Although, many other theories about her life have come into question over the years. It’s a widely debated topic whether Mary had a romantic relationship with Jesus while on Earth. Some have depicted her as a repentant prostitute when she meets Jesus. All of these conflicting stories make for a difficult script to write. The audience that knows of Mary’s history and theories that surround her will come in with expectations that will not all be represented in the newest film.

The problem with depicting biblical figures is the expectations of the audience, that have different images of Jesus and those involved with him but want those expectations to be upheld. However, they also need an interesting and new take on the biblical stories they know or the films will not be entertaining to watch. The efforts by previous filmmakers to make that happen have not always been successful.

In 1988, Martin Scorsese directed The Last Temptation of Jesus Christ, a film not based on the historical account in the Bible but adapted from a 1955 novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis. Even though the film states this, many protested the film for its depiction of Jesus, played by Willem Dafoe. Evangelical Protestants, Southern Baptist, and Eastern Orthodox churches considered the imperfect, “wimpy” character in the film to be an inaccurate representation of the Son of God.

The even stronger backlash came from a love scene between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, played by Barbara Hershey, in a dream sequence. The scene harks to the unproven theory of Jesus’s relationship with Mary and outraged many Christians. Mother Teresa even condemned the film. An Archbishop claimed the scene was “the fantasy of a sick human imagination . . . disavowing the Christian belief in a perfect and sinless Christ.” The film attracted protests against the studio and outside theaters upon its release, which was still somewhat successful.

Another biblical film that came with controversy was Mel Gibson’s 2004 epic The Passion of the Christ. Gibson put significant emphasis on the accuracy of the film’s portrayal of Jesus’s final moments in the New Testament. The result was a rather jarring film full of gruesome violence that shocked many viewers. The more troubling criticism it received was for its treatment of Jewish characters in the film. Many saw the antagonistic view of the Jewish characters that took part in Jesus’s execution to be unrealistically evil and historically wrong. Some said it made the Jews look like a “soulless mafia.”

These films are examples of the danger that comes with biblical dramas. They have the burden of pleasing Christians that know the narrative foundations of the films and the audience members that aren’t interested in the film because of their religious beliefs. They must be entertaining and accurate. They must offer an unexplored take on the Bible.

Mary Magdelene is off to a good start, by looking at the events of Jesus’s crucifixion through Mary’s point of view. Rooney Mara and Joaquin Pheonix are likely to bring talented performances and a good number of viewers. It’s unclear whether the film will include the theory on Mary’s relationship with Jesus from the synopsis, but the trailer that comes out today will tell us more.

Update: Here’s the first trailer for Mary Magdalene.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_