The rule of thumb for Biblical pics says that believers will love them and those not persuaded will jeer. As an atheist, I have a perverse fascination with them, so strong were the stories imprinted on my childhood imagination and so keen the frisson of thinking, while I watch chapter and verse unfold, ‘I know what’s going to happen to you, mate’. Australian director Garth Davis’s contribution to the genre, however, is a dreary antidote to insomnia. What it does do is clear up a commonly held misapprehension about Mary Magdalene, for I, like most people I suspect, thought that she was a prostitute. Apparently Pope Gregory declared her as such in 591, but her character was re-appraised and elevated to the status of bona fide Apostle by the Vatican in the last century. To me that takes a hunk of forgiveness and inclusiveness out of the Christian ethos, ie, through Jesus embracing a harlot, but let’s not get our knickers in a knot over it. Mary (Rooney Mara) first encounters Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) when he arrives in her neighbourhood on foot and in his grubby wrap-around rags. He has already established something of a name for himself, but among his followers, who see him as a political leader as much as a messiah, black Peter is bellicose and never quite accepting of Mary, while Judas is little more than a grinning groupie. There is no suggestion that Jesus and Mary were sexual partners, but the movie feels more like a pallid romance than an exploration of spirituality and the ‘history’ of Christianity’s beginning (it is set in 33CE, the year of the Crucifixion). Shot on location in Italy, it doesn’t really look like like Judea, but the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is a highlight – in fact, it’s the only scene in which the film comes to life. And that Mary was the Apostle, above all the others, to have ‘got’ Jesus’s true message is a bullish claim by writers Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett.
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