It is 2020 and, as a Women’s Studies in Religion academic, I am still having to dismantle the harmful narratives surrounding Mary Magdalene. Those harmful narratives are a product of Pope Gregory I incorrectly linking the unnamed sinful woman of Luke 7 to Mary Magdalene. From 591 C.E. onward, Mary Magdalene is given a stained reputation which influences her role within the Jesus Narrative and Christian traditions. Mary Magdalene has spent centuries depicted as a loose woman in art, literature, and more recently on the silver screen. Films surrounding Magdalene have all carried the harmful narratives established over the last two thousand years. Enter the 2018 feature film Mary Magdalene, one of the first and most accurate visual representations of the Biblical, historical Mary Magdalene. The film, a product of decades of feminist scholarship and biblical exegesis, becomes a beacon and marker of how far we have come and more importantly where we need to go from here.
The 2018 film, written by two women, Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, offers up a viewpoint from a Jewish woman who defies her family’s wishes for marriage and becomes a follower of the traveling rabbi Jesus. The film stars American actress Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene. What is striking is the very deliberate portrayal of Magdalene. We first see her fishing and deeply connected to her family. The entire film seeks to reject, reclaim, and rewrite who Magdalene is. Lisa Maurice’s book Screening Divinity sees this new film as not merely reclaiming the biblical Magdalene but representing the 21st century modern women. She writes,
She also becomes a more powerful figure, who is restyled in keeping with contemporary ideas, and, in her latest incarnation, becomes a role model for the twenty-first century woman, as a courageous and independent-minded female, whose heart is pure, and who battles against the constraints of patriarchal males who would seek to oppress her.1
Mary’s voice and experiences are what guide the film. The opening scene’s voiceover is of Mary Magdalene stating, “and she asked him, what will it be like, the kingdom? And he said, it is like a seed. A single grain of mustard seed. Which a woman took and sowed in her garden. And it grew and it grew. And the birds of the air made nests in its branches…”2 The film is centered on Mary’s experiences, her faith, and her very real and important role within the Jesus Narrative.
Throughout the film, the dialogue appears to be heavily influenced by The Gnostic Gospels and philosophical rhetoric. Many of what is coined as “Gnostic” was discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library. Elaine Pagel’s book The Gnostic Gospels explores the rhetoric, ideologies, and theologies that are presented in Pristis Sophia, The Gospel of Truth, The Gospel of Judas, and The Gospel of Thomas, to name a few. Many of the statements made within these gospels, focus on the esoteric nature of God, the role of knowledge, wisdom, and truth, and the relationships between humans and the divine. For the average viewer, the film’s dialogue, harkens to the current dialogues that many Christian communities are having today. For the academic, the dialogue and entire film can represents a synthesis of scholarship to popular culture.
The film highlights the struggles that early Christianity faced when deciding belief systems, theology, and leadership. The film’s disciples struggle with understanding what and who Jesus really was. The disciples want revolution, a physical ending of the suffering inflicted by Roman occupation, and independence of the Jewish peoples. It is Mary who starts to understand and witness that Jesus’s message and purpose is not a political revolution but a revolution of the mind and spirit. This echoes the biblical narratives surrounding Magdalene. Elizabeth Rae Coody echoes Magdalene’s pivotal role in Christianity. She writes, “She is the first witness to the central and defining moment of the Christian tradition.”3 The 2018 film’s Magdalene is the catalyst for Jesus to realize that while he had been preaching and healing to those in need, he had failed to fully minister to women.
One of the fundamental scenes in the film is when Magdalene tells Jesus that the women of Magdala were too afraid to be baptized alongside the men, and that they were not allowed to follow Jesus. When they arrive in Cana, Jesus goes to the washing wells to have converse with women. The following dialogue becomes a bridge between the lives of women throughout the centuries. The scene plays out with a woman responding, “We are woman. Our lives are not our own.”4 Jesus ponders this revelation and delivers his ideas; “Your spirit is your own. And you alone answer for that. And your spirit is precious to God. As precious as that of your husband, or your father.”5 The scene ends with Mary baptizing the women of Cana. It is a powerful scene that depicts women actively engaging and leading religious discourse and practice. It shifts the mainstream visual representations of Magdalene and how we talk about her. Tammie M. Kennedy’s Mary Magdalene and the Politics of Public Memory: Interrogating ‘The DaVinci Code’ writes, “As a figure of appropriation, recovery, and reinterpretation, Mary Magdalene illuminates the need to examine how rhetorical practices inscribe and misrepresent historical women in public memory.”6 Feminist Christian Historians like Karen Torjesen, Rosemary Radford Reuther, and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza have all showed the fundamental roles that women have played in the success and progression of Christianity. The 2018 film tries to mimic the work done within the academic field.
Feminist biblical scholarship and the 2018 film pushes against the public memory of Magdalene. Yet the public memory is continuously stuck on keeping Magdalene the fallen woman. The 2018 film can be a powerful visual tool for people to see Magdalene in her active role within the Jesus Narrative. In the film, Jesus commands Mary to pray and bless the people, to be his hands. The fallen Magdalene is a tool to ensure women’s places within the patriarchy. Kennedy sees this in Magdalene’s public memory. She writes, “Given the persistence of patriarchal power structures, it is easy to understand how the Magdalene in public memory has been subject to and has shaped the gendered ideologies that constrain and diminish women’s authority.”7 In the coming years, it will be interesting to see what the 2018 film does to change the public memory and the understandings of women within Christian leadership.
The film tries to reclaim and rework the Magdalene story, not just for her place within the Jesus Narrative, but also for 21st Century viewers. Maurice states that, “for the Mary of 2018 is a liberated woman, actively searching for truth, but ‘constricted by the hierarchies of the day’, the subtext of this is surely that these hierarchies, while less blatant, still exist in the present day.”8 We see this in the character of Peter and in the film’s acknowledgement at the end of what happens to Mary Magdalene within the historical narrative.
The character of Peter, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is immediately resistant to Mary. Peter struggles throughout the film in accepting Mary into their group and her understandings of Jesus’s teachings. The film echoes the disciple’s views on Mary not due to her sexuality, but merely due to her gender. Kennedy’s article unpacks the tensions that Magdalene holds within the group. She declares that, “Arguably, much of their resistance stems from misogynist views about women’s intellectual and leadership capacities, rather than from her presumed sexual practices.”9 Peter does accept that Mary saw the risen Jesus but rejects her role and mission for what it means for their group. This last scene of the disciples choosing to move forward without Jesus and his foundational message of forgiveness and building the kingdom with love, care, and forgiveness sets up the reality of church dynamics.
The ending of the film shows Peter declaring, “Every man in this room is his rock, his church upon which we will build his glorious new world with one purpose and one message.”10 Mary responds that this is not truly Jesus’s message but their own and she will not stay silent. Mary leaves the men and goes out teaching Jesus’s message of love, caring, and forgiveness alongside the other women who had started to follow Jesus. The last scene is the film’s acknowledgment that all the Christian Gospels place Mary of Magdala at Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection. However, due to Pope Gregory I’s edict, Mary has spent the last 2,000 years being misidentified and mistreated. Elizabeth Rae Coody explores how Magdalene has been used and abused by the patriarchal Church. She writes, “They needed her to fit into a patriarchal Church hierarchy, so they explained her power and part of a reform from prostitution. In other, more provocative words, some of the earliest traditional and sympathetic Christian interpreters of the Bible slut-shamed one of the most important figures in their own religious tradition.”11
While the movie was being filmed in 2016, the Vatican was attempting to correct the two thousand years of tarnished public memory by recognizing Magdalene as “Apostle of the Apostles.” The 2018 film can do a lot of work in dismantling the harmful public memory and narrative surrounding Mary Magdalene. Like Tammi Kennedy’s statement, “because the film uses images that read like ‘real’ memory, viewers forget that what they are watching is fictional.”12 Now that a film exists which shows Mary Magdalene as the ardent follower, the honest and faithful apostle, the public memory has the ability to reshape itself to honor, revere, and celebrate Mary Magdalene and in ways that can also honor, revere, and celebrate women’s full and complete roles in leadership, community, and in society.
Positive and accurate visual representations of figures are powerful. And yes, seeing can be a form of believing. Films are powerful in recreating, maintaining, and establishing public memory and narrative. And it has been too long for Mary Magdalene to remain in the shackles of patriarchy, to be slut-shamed, and to be diminished for what and who she was. And in that, future people- women, men, non-binary, alike can build upon the legacy of the woman who witnessed Jesus’s Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Gospel.
- Maurice, Lisa. Screening Divinity. Edinburgh University Press, 2020. 145.
- Edmundson, Helen, and Philippa Goslett. Mary Magdalene. Porchlight, See Saw Films, 2018.
- Langsdale, Samantha, and Elizabeth Rae. Coody. Monstrous Women in Comics. University Press of Mississippi, 2020. 27.
- Edmundson, Helen, and Philippa Goslett. Mary Magdalene.
- Edmundson, Helen, and Philippa Goslett. Mary Magdalene.
- Kennedy, Tammi M. “Mary Magdalene and the Politics of Public Memory: Interrogating ‘The Da Vinci Code.’” Feminist Formations, vol. 24, no. 2, 2012, pp. 120–139. 120.
- Kennedy, Tammi M. “Mary Magdalene and the Politics of Public Memory: Interrogating ‘The Da Vinci Code.’” Feminist Formations, 123.
- Maurice, Lisa. Screening Divinity. 143.
- Kennedy, Tammi M. “Mary Magdalene and the Politics of Public Memory: Interrogating ‘The Da Vinci Code.’” 125.
- Edmundson, Helen, and Philippa Goslett. Mary Magdalene.
- Langsdale, Samantha, and Elizabeth Rae. Coody. Monstrous Women in Comics. 27.
- Kennedy, Tammi M. “Mary Magdalene and the Politics of Public Memory: Interrogating ‘The Da Vinci Code.’” 129.