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Why Rooney Mara’s portrayal of Mary Magdalene is so very important

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Kayleigh Dray
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Rooney Mara’s new film is finally retelling Mary Magdalene’s story the way it should be – and, in the process, it’s redressing over 1,400 years of character assassination, too.

Mary Magdalene is one of the most intriguing and misunderstood spiritual figures in history – particularly as, despite zero supporting evidence in the Gospels, she was later pointed out to be a fallen woman or a prostitute.

Rooney Mara’s new film, however, is set to offer up an authentic and humanistic portrayal of a young woman in search of a new way of living. Constricted by the social hierarchies and gender roles of the day, Mary defies her traditional family to join a new social movement led by the charismatic Jesus of Nazareth (Joaquin Phoenix).

And, as we all know, she soon finds a place for herself within the movement and at the heart of a journey that will lead to Jerusalem – and a famously tragic ending.

Now, speaking about her upcoming movie with Harper’s Bazaar, Mara has said that Mary’s story – even though it is some 1,400 years old – is more timely than ever.

“We knew the film was timely when we were making it, but we never knew how timely it would really be,” said Mara.

“It’s a great way to further the conversation that’s been happening. The film is a feminist film, but it’s also about humanity, love and compassion, forgiveness and how all those things can effect change in the world.”

The actress goes on to explain that the film will not paint Mary as a fallen woman redeemed by God: instead, she will be portrayed as an independent, resourceful and intelligent free-thinker. And, as the film opens, we are introduced to a young woman whose talent for midwifery renders her an outcast – encouraging her to seek out and become a true equal of Jesus, offering him spiritual and emotional guidance when he needs it most.

“She’s incredibly radical for her time,” insisted Mara. “It would have been totally shocking and unheard of for a woman to go off with a load of men, leaving her family. She really was a profound feminist figure way ahead of her time. I couldn’t believe her story hadn’t been told before.” 

Elsewhere, Garth Davis, the film’s director, explained to the BBC that the claim that Mary was a sex worker comes from Pope Gregory I, who declared her to be a penitent prostitute in the year 591.

Despite there being no evidence for this in any of the New Testament gospels, the myth continued for many years – and the Catholic Church only “cleared” her name in 1969 (Pope Francis formally identified her as the “apostle of the apostles” in 2016).

“To learn it was an invention of Pope Gregory was astonishing, and to learn that Mary’s story had never been told in a popular way was tragic,” said Davis.

“I felt that her story absolutely had to be told, and I felt even more impassioned to tell it once I knew it had been hidden for so long.”

It is worth noting that Mary is mentioned 12 times in the New Testament, making her the second most mentioned woman, after the Virgin Mary. Most references are found in the Crucifixion and empty tomb narratives, where she is portrayed as a loyal disciple at the foot of the cross and as one of the first witnesses to the Resurrection.

Unlike other women in the Bible, though, Mary is not identified in relation to another person: she is not anyone’s mother, wife, or sister. Instead, she is called Mary of Magdala, a title that implies some prominence in the city – and she is consistently portrayed as a crucial player in arguably the most important event in Christianity: Jesus’ resurrection.

“Woman, why are you weeping?” Jesus asks his beloved friend, according to John’s Resurrection account (20:1-18).

Mary Magdalene initially mistakes Jesus for the gardener, who had just asked the same question of her. But then she turns and in her recognition calls out, “Rabbouni” (meaning “rabbi” or “teacher”). Then Mary of Magdala goes to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

Considering the prevailing attitude toward women in those times, it is telling that all four gospels (each of which was penned by a man) are consistent in placing Mary at the centre of this story: if they could have written her out, they undoubtedly would have.

With this in mind, then, it’s about time that St. Mary of Magdalene got her own movie.

Mary Magdalene will be released in cinemas across the UK and Ireland on 16 March – and it has definitely earned its place on our list of the 26 films every feminist needs to watch in 2018.

To view the list in full, click here.

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is editor of Stylist.co.uk, where she chases after rogue apostrophes and specialises in films, comic books, feminism and television. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends. 

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