Quite Contrary

A stacked cast adds to the story of Jesus of Nasareth

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Rooney Mara is the feminist apostle in ‘Mary Magdalene.’

The Eastertide story Mary Magdalene has an underpowered Rooney Mara in the title role as a girl of the lonely fisher-village of Magdala. She isn’t actually a harlot—this was a Dark Ages slander, but she’s the next worst thing; a daughter who disobeyed her parents.

Mary has a part-time career as a midwife. Her father Daniel (Denis Menochet) wants her to marry an established widower. The unwanted marriage causes the girl such torment that the community decides she’s possessed, forcing her into a watery exorcism at night. Alone and despondent, Mary meets a wandering rabbi familiar to us all. He comforts her, telling her he knows she doesn’t harbor demons.

At age 44, Joaquin Phoenix may be one of the oldest actors to play Jesus, and the choice for a sadder, aged Christ may be justifiable in a time and place where working people got old very early on in life. In real life, Phoenix was raised in a religious cult, and he has a deep understanding of both the grounded and the mysterious qualities of the role.

Australian director Garth Davis (Lion) shot this in the rock-strewn parts of southern Italy and Sicily, in a blue-filtered twilight. Johann Johannsson’s looped strings and pianos mirror the melancholiness. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Peter is a lieutenant who never quite understands what Jesus is getting at. Judas (Tahar Rahim, very good) is the zealot, certain that it’s the time to strike against the Roman occupiers.

As always, one dreads how the story ends. Davis makes it bearable, as opposed to the way it went down in The Passion of the Christ, bypassing the trial of Jesus with the convenient action movie shortcut of knocking a character out and letting them come to later. The sadness of what follows outweighs the disgust. Mary Magdalene’s part is to sit and commune with her rabbi as he dies. In the background we see little clusters of families and friends, seated in their own vigils at the foot of other crosses.

Phoenix’s sensitivity overwhelms the callouses one has against the Greatest Story Ever etc., and the bruises one accumulates in a lifetime of dealing with hateful Christians. Against this mysterious poignancy, Mara seems a bit lost and underpowered. Despite this, there are intelligent and careful moments throughout, such as the suspiciousness with which the elder Mary (Irit Sheleg) looks at this traveling woman, and the way she confides about her son, “He was never really mine.”

‘Mary Magdalene’ is playing in select theaters.
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