Sunday, February 9, 2020

MARY MAGDALENE and the Jesus Movie


I was on Twitter pontificating about Joaquin Phoenix's probable Oscar win tonight for his performance as Joker. I argued that the actor's best performance last year was as Jesus in Garth Davis's MARY MAGDALENE. (The film was released first overseas in 2018 and then had a brief limited run in the US last year.) Someone asked me if the movie itself was any good. In trying to answer that question, I started to reflect on the genre it belongs to, that subgenre of the biblical epic, the Jesus movie.

MARY MAGDALENE is an interesting addition to the corpus of Jesus movies. All Jesus movies have a different theological focus. This reflects (probably unintentionally) the way we receive the original story of Christ in the New Testament.

A digression: If you read the Christian Bible as a unified work, the break between the old and new testaments is a shocking transition. After the OT collection of myth, poetry, law, and history, we suddenly transition into four different takes on one story. Why the different perspectives? Even among the three synoptic Gospels there's a striking difference in style (the critic Harold Bloom once said that with its emphasis on demonic possession and dark forebodings the Gospel of Mark read like something written by Edgar Allan Poe), and that's before you even get to the epic Gospel of John, which takes things in radically different cosmological and Christological directions. 

All of which is a way of saying that the story of Jesus has been open to varied interpretation from the beginning. On film, his story has been told regularly since the earliest days of silent film, starting with George Melies's short CHRIST WALKING ON WATER in 1899. In fact, the first MARY MAGDALENE film (at least I think it was the first) was released as far back as 1914.

Making a film about Christ isn't simply a matter of assembling a collection of his greatest hits (of both the rhetorical and miraculous variety) and topping it off with the death and resurrection. A film about Christ has to stake out its own distinct theological point of view. What is the story the filmmaker wants to tell about Jesus? What's important about this story? What's less important? What's the final message of this story?

Something like Mel Gibson's PASSION OF THE CHRIST is a good example of what I mean. Gibson made the first fundamentalist Christian movie about Christ. He stripped the story down to one message: Christ took our much deserved punishment upon himself. Gibson hammers this message relentlessly for two hours. Christ suffered and died for us, and that is why we owe him our allegiance. Nothing else he said or did--the other 90% of the story of the Gospels--is important. And this message perfectly captures a fundamentalist understanding of the story of Christ. As a Southern Baptist, I heard this message preached three times a week every week, 52 weeks a year.

There are other good examples of what I mean. Pier Pasolini's THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW casts Jesus as proto-Marxist, focusing on the way his message is directed toward the poor and downtrodden living under imperial rule. Scorsese's THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST uses the Gospel story as a meditation on the struggle between the spirit and the flesh. Because it gives itself wide leeway in telling this story, the result is probably the most psychologically dense Jesus movie ever made.

MARY MAGDALENE is unique in that it focuses on Christ's relationship with Mary Magdalene. It decenters the story, making Jesus the object rather than the subject of the film. This decentering has been done before, of course, most famously in BEN-HUR, where Jesus isn't much more than a Very Special Guest Star. (The Coen brothers' brilliant and generally underrated HAIL CESAR! has a lot of fun lampooning BEN-HUR'S hamfisted attempts at big budget piety.) What makes MARY MAGDALENE unique is the way it shifts the focus to Mary Magdalene, arguing that she was Christ's primary disciple, the holy woman to his holy man, and that their message was rooted in a sense of liberation that might best be described as feminist.

There are so many ways this could go wrong, and doubtless some viewers will reject the film outright just on the basis of that description, just on the basis of the word feminist itself. And yet, it must be said that the film's primary strength is that it is a serious, even pious work, one that actually tries to wrestle with the notion that the core of Christ's message was a shattering of traditional hierarchies. It deals with one element that every serious consideration of Christ must deal with, the fact that his message was never fully understood by his disciples and followers, that according to the Gospels themselves, this was by design, that Christ kept his own counsel. In this film, Mary is the one who wrestles with it the most, who comes the best understanding of Christ's earthly mission.

As Mary, Rooney Mara is quite good, emotional but contained. She anchors the movie. But every Jesus movie, even the ones that decenter him, are about their Jesus, which brings us back around to Joaquin Phoenix.

I didn't love or hate JOKER. I thought it was okay. I thought Phoenix, fearless performer that he is, did what he had to do, but I also don't think there was anything terribly surprising about his performance. To hear that Joaquin Phoenix is playing a guy with mental health issues who descends into madness and becomes the Joker is to pretty much have already seen his performance. He plays crazy. He plays it with absolute commitment, but he's kind of just playing crazy.* 

As Jesus, however, Phoenix is offbeat. Not in a showy way. He plays Christ as a mystic, not tortured like Willem Defoe in LAST TEMPTATION but similarly haunted and unsure of himself. He's not the smug know-it-all that we sometimes get from the onscreen Jesus, the guy who already knows the answer and is just making the rest of us guess. Phoenix's Christ is a man coming to the dawning realization that he is also god, that he is communing with the spirit world in a way that no one else ever has. His relationship with Mara's Mary is chaste in large part because they've both transcended the body, with him showing her the way to a larger understanding of human existence and with her taking that message and trying apply it to the real world.

If Phoenix wins the Oscar tonight, good for him. He's one of the best actors we have, so I'll be happy for him. But his best performance last year wasn't as the Clown Prince of Crime but as the King of Kings.

*I can't remember the episode but the podcast Keep It recently did a good job articulating this same idea about JOKER and Phoenix's performance.