Mark L. Levinson
Like Israel itself, still ticking since 1948

Watching “Mary Magdalene” as a Jewish Israeli

I hadn’t known that according to Pope Francis, “It is certain that Mary Magdalene formed part of the group of Jesus’ disciples.” I’d expected the 2018 Mary Magdalene movie to be just a Hollywood-generated retcon driven by the same political correctness that gives Captain Ahab’s wife a book of her own or invents a Moorish sidekick for Robin Hood.

My main reason for watching was to see the first-tier Israeli actors who settled for third-tier roles in order to make a little pocket money and score a little international exposure:  Uri Gavriel, Shira Haas, Tsahi Halevi, Tawfeek Barhom, and more.  I’m not entirely sure why they were recruited, since the movie was filmed in Italy rather than in Israel, but they were there with the fluent Hebrew when the script required it.

In fact, I’ve never seen a Gospel movie kinder to the Jewish people.  It’s only the Romans who are Jesus’ enemy, and Judas is a tragic figure who intends no harm to Jesus.  Among the many checkboxes that the movie doesn’t bother checking off is the payment of 30 pieces of silver.

The movie is far from taking a Jewish point of view, though.  It de-emphasizes confronting the problems of this world and emphasizes the other world that coexists on the spiritual plane and is attained by faith.

The idea of the two worlds is signaled at the very start of the movie. Mary Magdalene (played by Rooney Mara)  is seen practicing a kind of self-baptism that is like being born from deep in the lake back into the air, and then she is called to help a baby into the world.  The mother, in her pain, is played by Shira Haas, who is the go-to Israeli actress for the role of a very young women in any kind of pain.

Jesus, we come to understand, knows he too is heading for a transition between worlds.  Played by Joaquin Phoenix in thick robes, he looks burlier than your usual movie Jesus, and it is all for the better because his divinity is the audience’s job to imagine without lots of help.  As Arthur Penn said, one of the strengths of cinema is that you can show one thing and say another.

To perform miracles, Jesus needs more than a flick of the wrist.  It appears that the miracles deplete him as he comes closer to the point where he will lose his hold on earthly life. Mary Magdalene helps him bear up, but the scriptwriters face a major challenge because a romantic relationship is not part of their mandate and there is very little in the New Testament for them to build much else on.  The other apostles, most of whom the film doesn’t take time to differentiate in any memorable way, seem to put the audience’s point of view on screen, wondering why the heck this woman is on the road with them.  Peter is the most hostile, and the implied message seems to be that, with that attitude, he was not about to establish a church that fully reflected Jesus’ philosophy.

When they approach Jerusalem — which to me, for some reason, looked rather more believable than the Sea of Galilee as shot in Italy — Mary Magdalene is accused “You weakened him,” and that seems to be a backhanded summary of the role that the scriptwriters found for her.  Not that she actually weakens Jesus, but on the contrary she provides moral support as he nears an inevitable fading through to the other world, just as at the start of the movie she helps a mother through a birth.

The Israeli actors were mostly underused, but at least they weren’t selling out to a film with a Jesus who was undermined by the Jews. There are Israeli films, set in modern times, that show less sympathy for us.

About the Author
Mark L. Levinson, in Israel since 1970, has worked as a writer for hi-tech companies and, now primarily, as a Hebrew-to-English translator.
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