Set in the Holy Land in the first century C.E., a young woman leaves her small fishing village and traditional family behind to join a radical new social movement. At its head is a charismatic leader, Jesus of Nazareth, who promises that the world is changing. Mary is searching for a new way of living, and an authenticity that is denied her by the rigid hierarchies of the day. As the notoriety of the group spread and more are drawn to follow Jesus’ inspirational message, Mary’s spiritual journey places her at the heart of a story that will lead to the capital city of Jerusalem, where she must confront the reality of Jesus’ destiny and her own place within it.

MARY MAGDALENE was better than I thought it would be and not as good as I thought it would be.

What I liked about it: The story is told through the eyes of Mary Magdalene. She is the main character in the story, which is excellent given that the New Testament (NT) gospels are written from a male perspective (we don’t know who wrote the NT gospels, but the view is obviously male). Mary is portrayed as challenging the religious and cultural patriarchy of the first century CE. And she, unlike the male disciples of Jesus, is the only one who “gets” what Jesus mission is about.

I also appreciated that the supernatural elements of the NT gospels are underplayed and, while they are present, they play a minimal role in the narrative. MARY MAGDALENE is a provocative retelling of the traditional story and, the director is apparently not bound by tradition. MARY MAGDALENE is a fresh take on the story. We know that the NT gospels are not historical fact — they were written by anonymous authors decades after Jesus lived who constructed them to make Jesus look as though he had fulfilled Old Testament narrative patterns and to make theological points for the readers of the first century. The director of MARY MAGDALENE follows in that tradition, telling a story that critiques contemporary assumptions about gender, belief, doubt, and faith. Joaquin Phoenix does a gentle but powerful version of Jesus. The cinematography is beautiful.

What I didn’t like: I think Mara Rooney was miscast as Mary Magdalene. She’s never quite authentic and seems a little uncomfortable with the role. The script is a bit dull at times and drags a bit. A bit more passion would have been welcomed.

Christians who read the gospel texts insisting that they are literal history probably won’t like MARY MAGDALENE. For others, there is a lot to think about in this of contemporary significance. The more a person knows the traditional telling of the story of Jesus, the more they will appreciate the variations in this movie. A worthy, if uneven, film that takes a middle road between preachiness and sensationalism.