For 14 years, the heathens of Hollywood have struggled to build on the lightning-strike success of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” with its bizarre combination of torturous piety and throat-grabbing showmanship. Gibson infamously became persona non grata shortly after submitting his softer 2005 recut; the studios’ initial response – 2006’s “The Nativity Story,” overseen by a pre-Twilight Catherine Hardwicke – sunk without much trace; the gap in the market came to be flooded, and eventually saturated, by those evangelically funded indies (of which 2014’s “God’s Not Dead” remains the most prominent) preaching wholeheartedly, if not always so elegantly or competently, to the converted.
Universal’s “Mary Magdalene” might, then, be counted as the first serious mainstream reckoning with faith for almost a generation. Toplined by the ever-committed, never-smiling pair of Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix, helmed by “Lion” director Garth Davis, and produced by the team behind “The King’s Speech,” it would presumably have been pitched into the 2018 awards mix itself had key distribution partner Harvey Weinstein not been kicked out of the temple at a critical moment in its genesis. Rescheduled for a not inapt Easter release, what emerges is the definition of a mixed blessing: a film of (often literal) peaks and troughs, scattering occasional moments of grace.
Davis approaches his task with the same unimpeachable sincerity he brought to “Lion,” aiming for a very specific patch of middle ground: to draw out those elements of this story that might be considered human and enduringly relevant, and to do so without incurring the wrath some brought down on Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.” His film, accordingly, is Sunday-school tasteful, deeply politically correct, and informed by an evident level of scholarship – much ritual, sporadic speaking in tongue – even if it doesn’t always easily translate into compelling action or credible behavior. These characters move in mysterious, even mystifying ways; as with a lot of faith-based dramas, you may feel as if you need to have The Book to hand.
The script, by the British pair of Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, strives to reposition Mary Magdalene – slandered in early Church texts as a prostitute, a slur that stuck for centuries – as something akin to a radical free spirit. First seen engaging in impromptu yet improbably successful midwifery, she rejects the love match made for her by an overbearing father (Denis Menochet), and flees home altogether after pa attempts to flush out the demon he perceives to have got into her. Here, Edmundson and Goslett suggest, are the roots of that slander: that Mary was a young woman who resisted patriarchal control to travel her own path, and came to be roundly denounced by her elders for doing so.
A question mark lingers, however, over the extent to which this early A.D. creation can convincingly be converted into a feminist icon. Her limpid eyes front and center, Mara plays the part as a quivering reservoir of empathy waiting to be channeled in the right directions; after some shaky introductory scenes, it’s a performance that grows on you, yielding a more thoughtful and touchingly relatable Mary than, for one, Gibson’s altogether idealized, two-dimensional, none-more-Catholic Madonna (Monica Bellucci). Yet in this incarnation, Mary remains a gal longing for a savior – it’s just he happens to be the Savior, that’s all.
A further problem: we start to doubt whether he’s all that. The unpredictable JP as JC sounds promising, and Phoenix undeniably looks shroud-ready, Biblical mane, prophetic mien, and mystic gaze all very much in place. (In a film of prodigious face-fuzz, his beard would give Homeland’s Saul a run for his shekels.) Phoenix scarcely radiates warmth, however, and his big oratorical moments are undermined by some affected speech patterns that a more experienced director might have stepped in and shut down. Instead, he appears smug and superior, a holier-than-thou hippie tutting through a first-wave toga party – the first Jesus outside the blasphemies of “Family Guy” to seem a little bit of a dick.
Granted, Davis is going for youthful idealism – floating the notion that these kids were revolutionaries seeking to topple an oppressive regime – with Mary consolidating the disciples’ impeccable intersectionality. Chiwetel Ejiofor brings his usual gravity to bear as an identifiably African John the Baptist, a choice that might seem risky were we in less sensitive hands, while Tahar Rahim, as Judas, seizes upon the closest thing here to a character arc, boyish enthusiasm shading into sad-eyed betrayal. For much of the film, though, they’re left looking like backpacking students, set to endless trudging up hillsides where someone or other starts proclaiming dialogue apparently sourced directly from the Dead Sea Scrolls.
As Godly spectacle, the film is too introverted to be overwhelming: in place of miracles and wonders, we get pauses and shuffles. Everything “Lion” made transporting and otherwise moving – the sense of youth finding its chosen place in the world – turns repetitious and uninvolving in the draggy second act. “Mary Magdalene” only snaps into focus as narrative when we get to Jerusalem, chiefly because it gives these kids something to physically rail against – moneylenders, Judas kisses, Romans, and all. It’s a little on the late side, though: Where Gibson made you feel the agonies of his Christ for what seemed like weeks, we’re whizzed through this Calvary in less than five minutes.
Along the route, Davis arguably reclaims this story from the religious right, rerouting it away from lacerated, victimized flesh and back toward tolerant souls: he’s aided by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s typically searching final score, and cinematographer Greig Fraser, who – while not on “Bright Star” form – stages the odd fresco of bodies at prayer that might have made even a syphilitic Old Master offer thanks to the heavens. What’s missing is anything much of Gibson’s passion, which, however wayward or inflammatory, might just have pepped up those stretches of “Mary Magdalene” that become indistinguishable from sermons or unleavened bread: manna for believers, perilously dry for everyone else.
“Mary Magdalene” opens theatrically in the United Kingdom on March 16, 2018. Its U.S. release date has not been announced.