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11 Lingering Questions About the Rooney Mara–Joaquin Phoenix Film Mary Magdalene

Photo: Transmission Films

After what feels like a 2,000-year delay, Garth Davis’s Mary Magdalene is finally hitting theaters. In the biopic (?), which was nearly lost in the fray following the Weinstein Company’s collapse but is now being released by IFC, Rooney Mara plays Mary, a woman who the pope only recently admitted was not a prostitute but in fact the first witness to Jesus’s resurrection. Joaquin Phoenix plays Jesus, and honestly, it’s incredible it took him this long. Emily Yoshida and Rachel Handler bore witness to the film’s own resurrection this week, and came away with more questions than answers. Let’s all smoke a quick cigarette underneath Jesus’s crucified body and get started!

Why is everyone wearing the exact same outfit?
The first thing that struck us about Mary Magdalene was the sheer tonnage of linen. Everyone is draped in kind of gauzy monochrome beige, which seems too light to really be effective at blocking the desert sun, but just light enough to catch the wind picturesquely. At one point Rooney Mara’s Mary is seen mending a fishing net, standing underneath it, and the combination of net on gauze on muslin was just a full-on 360-degree assault of ethereality. It’s very Yeezy Season 2. More like Jeezy Season though because, of course, Jesus is there.

Why does Mary have such good eyebrows?
It’s 33 CE in the desert, and everyone should be filthy. Instead, Rooney Mara has flawless skin and stunningly coiffed eyebrows. Not only are they combed, but they’re shaped in a way that suggests Mary Magdalene visits a waxer on a biweekly basis. This distracted us during 99 percent of the film! We are certain Rooney Mara used Boy Brow on this set in order to trap Joaquin Phoenix (and it worked).

Why does everyone have a totally different accent?
We won’t pretend to be experts on Nazareth in the year 33 CE. However, as women who have lived on the Earth before, we have come to expect that people who are stuck in the same desert for the same duration of time would speak in the same accent, or at the very least, one of a few similar accents. Let’s put aside, for a moment, the fact that most characters in this movie are white and speaking English (oy!) — we want to focus on and interrogate the accent work here.

Rooney Mara seems to be doing a sort of vague, generalized Middle Eastern thing, but only selectively; sometimes, she drops the accent in the middle of a scene, sometimes in the middle of a sentence. Large swaths of the film go by with Mary Magdalene speaking like Patricia Mara, heir to two football dynasties.

Meanwhile, Joaquin Phoenix is not even attempting an accent. His voice work is centered on a quality we will refer to as “sad scratchiness.” The sadder Jesus gets (and he gets … very sad), the scratchier his voice becomes. Sometimes he lashes out angrily (more on this later), and his voice gets really scratchy. In one scene, midway through the film, Joaquin does briefly mimic Rooney’s Middle Eastern–ish accent when he says, “What troubles your sister?” Other than that, Jesus sounds like an American boy.

Other accents that pop up throughout the film include: Israeli (we will take it), French (no), British (no), Nigerian (sure), and Eastern European (no).

Why is Jesus being played by a 44-year-old man?
Earlier, we suggested that Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus was always an inevitability. However, someone really should have cast him as Jesus ten years ago. Joaquin has lived a lot of life, which is wonderful; however, it is also visible. Jesus, famously, did not. This is a distracting contrast.

Why is Jesus being played by a 44-year-old man who is basically giving the same performance he gave as a PTSD-suffering, hammer-wielding assassin in You Were Never Really Here?
Not only has Phoenix’s Jesus lived a lot of life, that life seems to involve a quart of whiskey a day and periodic self-imposed asphyxiation. His beatitudes are very wavy indeed and borderline belligerent; they come off less as an exhortation to pious humility and more like a list of excuses by an employee who has just been reprimanded for showing up drunk to work. “Yeah, well, fuck you, mine is the kingdom of heaven, man!”

Is Mary Magdalene a feminist icon?
The movie posits that the reason Mary decided to follow Jesus and join the disciples is because she didn’t want to marry some rich guy that her dad was trying to set her up with. “It is not the life for me,” she half-whispers in her Russian(?) accent. Yas queen! But then she obviously gets a boner for Jesus the second he arrives at her home, where he has been summoned to cast a demon out of her. (We’ve all been there, ladies!) After watching one slurred sermon, she runs off to essentially be the female outreach liaison for the Son of God. It’s a job that is half Band Aid, half diversity consultant, but also requires that her lap always be available to cradle the head of the Messiah when he’s tie-tie and needs a nap. She’s still surrounded and judged by men; they’re just a bunch of zealous randos instead of her dad. Aside from the whole Kingdom of Heaven thing, it kind of just looks like being a wife to 13 husbands. But of course, that’s her prerogative. Yas queen.

Is Jesus a feminist icon?
At one point in the movie, Jesus comes upon a group of women who are, understandably, upset about being women in the year 33 CE. One tells Jesus the story of a friend who was caught cheating on her husband and then gang-raped; she asks Jesus if she’s supposed to forgive the men who did it. Jesus is like, “Well, yeah.” The women are, again understandably, pissed about this. The same woman tells Jesus, “Our lives are not our own.” He looks stumped, then does a pitch-perfect Millennial Male Feminist pivot: “But your spirits are your own.” The woman, mansplained nearly to death at this point, asks him if she’s supposed to obey God or her husband. “God,” he answers. “So we’re supposed to defy our husbands?” she asks, which is the sort of question you ask when you have been gaslit for your entire life and are now being gaslit in an entirely different way by a stranger in mandals. “Defy your husbands and brothers, but forgive them,” he says. Everyone leaves the scene more confused than when they got there, including us.

However, at one point, Jesus brings somebody back from the dead, and Mary kills someone. This is feminism.

Does Mary Magdalene pass the Bechdel test?
The movie opens with Mary helping deliver a baby in a room full of sweaty, panicked women. I guess that conversation (“Hold her legs down!” “Push!”) qualifies. Though really it depends on whether the baby is a boy. Also, it could be argued that none of these women would be in this uncomfortable position without a man. The other notable conversation between Mary and another woman happens when her French(?) cousin tells her that nobody will want to marry her if she’s friends with Jesus. So … no.

Why is Mary’s baptism so horny?
Early on in the film, Jesus baptizes Mary in a river after she leaves her family to follow him around. Watching it, we felt like we had accidentally put Rooney and Joaquin’s sex tape into our VCR (the scene has a very ’90s vibe, sexually). Rooney stares deep into Joaquin’s eyes as he dunks her, again and again, into the cold water; Joaquin stares back in a way that can only be described as “flirty.” Frozen water filling her nose and mouth, streaming down her face, Rooney eye-fucks Joaquin so ably that we began to wonder if this was the scene, specifically, that brought them together IRL. Then we began to wonder if Jesus and Mary ever did it, and if the movie would be able to suggest this without single-handedly creating a schism in the Catholic Church (spoiler alert: They don’t even smooch). Ten minutes later, we came to and realized we had missed a significant portion of the plot.

Does Joaquin lift?
We saw his ribs at one point.

Who crucified Jesus and why?
Perhaps in an effort to convey a Terrence Malick–y vibe, or perhaps because Davis & Co. assume everybody knows the Bible by heart, Mary Magdalene leaves a lot of narrative holes unfilled. (Please … grow up … we are talking about the Bible.) The film is two hours long, and took us two full days to actually complete watching; still, it manages to skip around so much and with such abandon that it never actually clarifies who is mad enough at Jesus to nail his hands and feet to some wood in the town square. Mary gets knocked out at one point, and when she wakes up, Jesus is stumbling around, bleeding; moments later, he’s up on the cross, dying, as if he had jumped up there of his own volition. Guys, what happened?!

11 Lingering Questions About Mary Magdalene