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    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

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    Friday, April 06, 2018

    Further Thoughts on Mary Magdalene

    (Photo credit - Transmission Films)
    I made a second trip to see Garth Davis' Mary Magdalene (2018), yesterday, so thought this would be a good juncture to discuss a few other observations I have about the film, some of which only occurred to me during a second viewing. (Link to original review)

    The first thing that surprised me was the attendance. This contrasted greatly with the screening I went to on the film's opening night, where perhaps only 8-12 of us watched it two weeks before Good Friday. This time, at 6pm on Easter Wednesday, the, admittedly small, theatre was packed out, with about 60-80 in attendance. Having recently read one of my friend Steven D, Greydanus' tweets about the amount of time spent at church in the run up to Easter, I'm wondering if the recent strategy of releasing Bible films in the run up to Easter is perhaps misplaced.

    Brutality of Mary's Family
    It's often the earliest scenes that most benefit from a repeat viewing and so it proved here. Among various things to strike me this time was the brutality of Mary's eldest brother Dan. I recalled it the first time, but second time around the way he bullies all the members of his family - even his father - is really uncomfortable. Whilst none of Mary's family are in favour of her leaving to follow Jesus, there are a range of responses. In contrast to Dan, there's Mary's other brother Joseph (?). It is he that is the first one from Mary's family in contact with Jesus, and he that suggests "the healer" might be able to sort out his sister after the failed forced exorcism. Mary's father lies somewhere between the two. Certainly he lacks the anger of his eldest son, and he too is shown to be intrigued by the Jesus movement, but he also stands aloof from it in the scene where the people of Magdala swarm round Jesus on the beach (very reminiscent of Jesus Christ, Superstar).

    The other things that was utmost in my mind in these scenes and throughout, is the question of whether the film is supersessionist and therefore anti-Semitic. This line of thought was planted by an anonymous article in The Conversation which argues that whilst the film "dodges many of the anti-Jewish pitfalls of earlier Jesus films" the way it shows Jewish worship in the synagogue at Magdala "presents Judaism as unchanging from antiquity to today".

    The two issues the article hones in on are the gender segregation in the temple and the use of modern Hebrew rather than the Aramaic that would have been spoken at the time. I was staggered by the author's claim that "no evidence to support a division of genders in synagogue worship in antiquity" as I have seen/heard this presented on numerous occasions. I have, however, never looked into the issue myself. The author cites a paper on Leadership in ancient synagogues which provides evidence of women leading in synagogues at that time. That already disproves my previous understanding, even if it doesn't go quite as far as the author's assertion ("no evidence"). This quite key as the film is at pains to portray Mary leaving a 'world' that oppressed her to join a movement that liberates her and treats her as an equal, and to an extent plays those two worlds off against one another. And in rewatching the film it's clear that the religious aspect of the former world is a key component (though not the only one) of her oppression and one that the film ramps up, for example the over reaction to her praying in the synagogue. The use of Hebrew rather than Aramaic seems less problematic to me, but it does portray Judaism as frozen in time, which is a key element of supersessionism as I understand it.

    Two other scenes came to mind in this respect. The first is the contrasting scenes from Cana, where significantly there is no interaction at all with the religious aspects of the town. In Magdala many are baptised, but Mary is the only new recruit. In Cana Jesus comes away with a substantial following.

    More significant, in this respect, is the film's other depiction of the Jewish religion, and again it's very negative. As The Conversation article points out the scenes of sacrifice in the temple are portrayed as a problem, and Jesus' opposition to them goes significantly beyond what we find in the various clearing the temple passages in the Gospels.

    I feeling led by the article's line of thinking to question whether it's even possible for a Jesus film to avoid supersessionism. And to wonder, if so, if that equates to all Jesus films being anti-Semitic. Mary Magdalene gets a lot right in this respect - it avoids the most troubling passages completely, it even shows some fair minded Jews who listen to Jesus, and agree to disagree (although they are too few in number), it absolves Judas of blame and it makes it clear that it's the Romans who are responsible for killing Jesus because the people have called him Messiah. And yet, it undoubtedly pits Jesus against, Judaism and ultimately portrays him as being a bridge between his people and our modern values such as female equality. Can any Jesus film avoid this?

    Plot spurred on by Crisis
    Anyway, there were a few other things which came to mind. Firstly, it occurred to me this time around that as much as Mary's change of path is sparked by her meeting Jesus, it's also the result of a crisis, namely her impending marriage to a man she doesn't love. It's her reaction this (rushing to the synagogue to pray out loud) that make those around her think she is possessed and leave her feeling drastically adrift from her family.

    Repeated Ideas
    I was also struck by the number of themes and ideas that repeat through the film. So there is the opening shot of Mary floating/sinking in the water, which is not only repeated later in the film, but is also what Mary describes just before she asks Jesus "Is that how it feels to be one with God?" Then there is the phrase that Jesus uses when asked about forgiveness asks something along the lines of "How does it feel to hold all that anger inside? Does it lessen as the months go by?" Mary repeats this later in the film (after the resurrection if I remember rightly) only changes "months" to "days".

    Then there is the repeated retelling of the (reworked) parable of the mustard seed, which, again occurs at the very start of the film and then towards the very end. This is interesting in itself as the revision is quite significant, but quite nicely done (if I didn't have so much to do at the moment, I might devote a whole post to this, but still). There are four ancient versions of this parable, three from the Bible (Matthew, Mark and Luke) as well as one in the Gospel of Thomas. These vary quite a bit suggesting it's use was widespread in the era before the gospels were written down. Mary's version changes the protagonist from Matt/Luke to a woman (like the protagonist in the following Parable of the Leaven) and she plants it in her garden, rather than sowing it in a field - a far more caring and nurturing image. Perhaps when the DVD comes out I'll go into more depth.

    Similarities with Paul
    Lastly, there are also a number of similarities between this film and last month's other big screen Bible film, Paul, Apostle of Christ. Both films are kind of semi-fictional, turning their backs on some of the key material in the Bible in favour of their own material. Mary ignores John's post resurrection sequence; Paul is located in the time after the account in Acts has ended. Both films also have a quietness about them. Paul is wordier than Mary but still everyone speaks in hushed tones. This extends to a somewhat anti-epic feel to both films. Both have crowd scenes, but the vast majority of time in both films is spent tucked away from public view. Also both films minimise the violence in the places where it would be expected (in the crucifixion and the beheading of Paul), but introduce some grim scenes elsewhere, namely human bodies burnt by the Romans. And both give their lead women more elevated roles than either they have had before on film or in the source material, but don't really develop any other female character. I've got a feeling there are other similarities and may add a few on if they occur to me later.

    Needless to say there are a few things I will be keen to re-visit when this film comes out on DVD.

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    • At 7:38 pm, April 06, 2018, Blogger Unknown said…

      Regarding supersesionizm: I would say that these worries are more conected with political correctnes that with genuine worry of antisemitism. Face the facts, Christianity brought new or newer ethical code (for example, question regarding Moses law on separation).It was based on judaism, but nonetheless it was an update. You can call it supersessionism, or you can call it cultural change. Sometimes speech about supersessionism is just defense reaction.

    • At 7:14 pm, April 11, 2018, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      Supersessionism is not inherently anti-Semitic. To say that the Mosaic covenant has been superseded by the New Covenant does not mean that the Israelite religion of the past, or the rabbinical Judaism of today (which people too easily conflate), is accursed or that the Jewish faithful are accursed. It certainly says nothing at all about secular Jews. Christian recognition of the end of Mosaic Law does not require either racism or religious bigotry.

      The idea of "Judaism as unchanging from antiquity to today" is ridiculous and ahistorical. Read Shaye JD Cohen.

    • At 7:56 pm, April 11, 2018, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      If it were possible, I would edit my last comment to say that the screenwriter should have read Shaye JD Cohen. In any case, it's strange to criticize the film for depicting "Judaism as frozen in time" while also suggesting that it is problematic for it to depict the Second Temple sacrificial system negatively. Plenty of religious Jews view historical animal sacrifice negatively, and plenty of Israelites living in the time of Christ opposed the Temple cult. Actually, Jesus' group was a sect within the larger Israelite religion and can be depicted as such if filmmakers would simply choose to do so. Opposition to the Temple cult did not magically place Jesus and his group outside "Judaism", as if the Israelite religion was monolithic.

      The chief priests were certainly complicit in the death of Jesus. It is not "anti-Semitic" or "anti-Jewish" to recognize that. Some Israelite sects held the chief priests in contempt. The chief priests should be understood and depicted as having represented one particular form of the larger Israelite religion.


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