By Fr Robert Christo, Vicar for Communications
The Biblical Mary Magdalene intrigues me. Challenged by Archbishop Jason Gordon during the Triduum to seek out a character in the gospel and journey with him/her (Archbishop’s column March 25), I ventured to view the film ‘Mary Magdalene’.
Mary Magdalene’s image has been repeatedly conscripted, contorted and contradicted and a succession of fantasies has accompanied her past portrayals. Indeed, Mary Magdalene of the New Testament was a leading figure from Galilee. When most men had abandoned Jesus, she stayed with Him. She was at the Crucifixion. She was at the tomb. She was one of the first to whom Jesus appeared after the Resurrection with instructions to preach the “Good News”.
In other texts of the early Christian era, it seems her status as an ‘apostle’ even rivalled that of Peter and her intimacy with Jesus was oftentimes misinterpreted. This may have led to the most consequential note: that she was a misunderstood outcast and a repentant prostitute, who also struggled with demon possessions.
The movie’s cinematography and visuals were truly exquisite, animating the beauty of the simple fishing village life with its dress, cuisine, and sometimes raucous waves ever present, reminiscent of the north coast of Trinidad – yet the confusion regarding Mary Magdalene continued and I struggled to connect the dots.
I became confused with the lack of understanding of Mary Magdalene’s role as a disciple and how she appears to be at odds with the apostles, even Peter, portrayed as clueless patriots. Magdalene pledges to carry out Jesus’ message of mercy with the dying, despite the “corrupt” message she feels that Peter will pass on in forming the church, yet according to scripture, Peter was the only one who stood with Jesus after His Eucharistic discourse.
The movie has a strong feminist bias while strangely leaving out Jesus’ other female disciples as well as the friendship with St John the beloved who stayed with Jesus to the bitter end. Instead, it depicts Mary Magdalene as the only one to understand Jesus’ message of love, mercy and forgiveness and she is seen even prompting Jesus to preach to the village women.
This contrasts with scriptures where Jesus needed no prompting to dialogue with the Samaritan woman, or to visit Mary or Martha. More disturbing, Magdalene is also seen baptising women using a strange formula, “…into the Light,” yet another contradiction with the Trinitarian baptism – according to the Catholic tradition.
Mother Mary, looking a bit grouchy, enters Jerusalem (notably without donkey) with the disciples and all the intimacies between Mary Magdalene and Jesus are then played out viciously. Indicating Jesus, Mother Mary sharply asks Magdalene, “You love him, don’t you?” Magdalene is then seen lying next to Jesus as His only companion in distress, prior to death. She comforts Him, cradling His head in her lap – a gentle reminder of God’s vulnerability in His humanity.
Although the movie places little emphasis on Peter, ironically, it ends with references to the very Church built on the rock of Peter (Mt 16:18); yet again, the movie distorts the message of the Catholic Church. Magdalene is denied identity as a penitent so missing out on God’s amazing grace working in and through sin to bring the Good News which Christ conquered in His death and Resurrection.
This visually appealing film which attempts to clarify the role of a woman often misconstrued, leaves hanging the core truth about the salvific power of the Gospel. The Gospel is not only about human charity and forgiveness or equality between men and women; it encompasses God’s design and persistence for human salvation from the Fall to this present moment. The movie may have lost this aspect of God’s amazing plot.