When Joaquin Phoenix took on the role of Jesus in the new film "Mary Magdalene", he accomplished many of the tasks expected: long hair, taking an intense and supernatural look, even meditated at the top of a mountain.
But there was one thing he would not do.
At the beginning of "Mary Magdalene", which opened Friday in the United States, the script invited Jesus to heal a blind woman by rubbing mud in his eyes, echoing John's gospel. (This is a blind man in the Bible, a blind man in the movie.)
"I knew this scene from the Bible, but I guess I never really thought about it," Phoenix told CNN in a recent interview.
"When I got there, I thought, I'm not going to scrub the dirt in his eyes." Who would do it?! # Would he do that? It does not make sense. C & # 39; is a horrible introduction to the sight. "
The Bible does not fully explain why Jesus used mud or clay to heal the blind, although some experts say that it was a common practice among first century healers.
In "Mary Magdalene", Phoenix decided to go with her guts, licking her thumb without mud and gently rubbing the woman's eyes.
"It has freed me, in some ways, from discovering what is true in the present moment," he said. "This moment does not really concern a real miracle – it's about someone who was fired by society and who was finally seen, embraced and encouraged to join the larger community. a miracle, this feeling is profoundly beautiful. "
This humanist message captures the essence of "Mary Magdalene", a film that aims for historical fidelity in some respects, but whose emotional and intellectual currents are radically contemporary.
A spiritual film but not religious
The goal of the filmmakers was to "save" the main character, telling the story of Jesus from a feminist (and feminist) point of view.
Embodied by a flexible and luminous Rooney Mara, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a spiritual seeker and a soul close to Jesus. Their connection confuses and annoys the other apostles, especially Peter, who seeks to marginalize Mary. In this respect and others, "Marie-Madeleine" seems to be inspired by both the # MeToo movement and the "Gospel of Mary", an apocryphal book discovered in 1896.
Ironically, the distribution of the film in the United States was delayed several years after Weinstein's withdrawal during the #MeToo scandal.
The director, Garth Davis, who was hailed for his first feature, "Lion," said he felt "disconnected" from the church as he grew up in Australia. Like a growing number of Westerners, his spiritual life lies outside of organized religion, another dominant theme in "Mary Magdalene".
"I did not want to make religious film," Davis told CNN in an interview. "I wanted to make a spiritual film."
In a pivotal scene, Mary strongly suggests that the apostles blurred Jesus' message with theirs. The coming kingdom that Jesus preached is not something we can see with our eyes, she said to Peter. It is the contentment of a soul that has given up resentment and anger, which grows with every act of love and care.
"This is not a place where you can go and stay there forever," Mara told CNN in an interview. "It's a choice you have to make every day, every moment."
In the film, Peter tells Mary that she is wrong, accusing her of weakening their movement and Jesus himself. Nevertheless, it persists.
"I will not shut up," says Mary. "I will be heard."
That "Mary Magdalene" accurately describes the character of her title is a question for scholars. But his presentation of a woman defying the patriarchal structure of organized religion is firmly of that moment. Even before the explosion of #MeToo, women in conservative Christian circles have pushed back restrictions that have often marginalized and silenced them.
For centuries, Mary Magdalene herself has been buried under false confusions with other biblical characters and has been described as a demon-possessed prostitute. It was only in 1969 that the Catholic Church stopped identifying it with the "sinful woman" who anointed Jesus' feet in the Scriptures. Later, the church returned to Mary Magdalene her due, the apostle apostles caller because she was the first to witness the resurrection of Jesus.
Mara, who was raised in the Catholic religion and attended Catholic schools, said that she was initially reluctant to take on the lead role.
"I had all those misconceptions about Mary Magdalene and about religion in general, a baggage that made me hesitate," Mara said. "It was only after talking to Garth and watching the story as an adult, without that Catholic school bag, that I was able to undress and see her with a fresh look. "
Even in modern times, the urge to sexualize Mary Magdalene was apparently strong, with popular books and films suggesting that the connection between Jesus was more than spiritual.
In "Mary Magdalene", their kinship is deeply emotional, but not sexual. Mary alone sees the record of Jesus' life on his mind and body.
"The heart of the relationship is the understanding that they see each other," said Mara. "Mary has felt moved all her life, and they really understand each other as nobody can, there is a deep love out there."
What will Christians see in "Mary Magdalene"?
Movies about Jesus and early Christians often have to go through a narrow door. If they are too pious, they risk distracting the secular viewers. If they take risks and go "out of the scriptures", they could alienate religious believers.
That's also true for "Mary Magdalene," said Kutter Callaway, assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical school in California.
"Many curators will immediately be angry if they even claim to have a work of art that puts words in the mouth of Jesus that are not from the scriptures."
Nevertheless, Callaway, who saw the film, said that he "feminized" Jesus in "common sense". By centering the story of Jesus and focusing on women, the film shows how radical it was for a woman such as Mary Magdalene to leave her home and family to follow. Jesus.
"It forces the viewer to be guided and directed by serious women's concerns and on the ground," Callaway said. "There is a threat of ubiquitous violence even today.It is a very different message from most movies about Jesus, but it is also very important to us today when we are discussing in the religious community and more widely on the are treated. "
In a terrifying scene, Mary's family performs an exorcism on her, thinking that her extraordinary behavior is the result of demonic possession.
But already, some conservative Christians have criticized "Mary Magdalene", calling her message "heresy" and claiming that it can not be accurate because it relies on texts that are not in the Bible.
Jesus 'portrayal of Phoenix is also far from Christ's "brilliant, happy, and super powerful" many of Jesus' movies, Callaway said.
"Mary Magdalene" captures Jesus in his later years, when he is tired of his past and worried about his future. As described by Phoenix, he is often disheveled and far apart, the prophet prophets more than the king of kings exalted. His slow burning in the temple while he watches lenders sell animal sacrifices, prefiguring his own sacrificial crucifixion, translates the film's ambivalence about Jesus' mission.
Phoenix stated that he was trying to portray the humanity of Jesus while recognizing his divinity.
"What the film says is that we both have it at the same time, which is what I personally believe."
How does an actor convey this conviction to the screen?
"The key for me was not to apply rules to the character," he told CNN. "There are times when he is angry and moments when he is at peace, he is really a human being, the only thing we insisted on is that all that is he felt, he felt it strongly, I do not know if it was a sixth sense or something else, but he made an effort to listen to others and be deeply empathetic. "
After arriving on the plateau of southern Italy, Phoenix said, his mind was swimming in search and thoughts about Jesus. He decided to go alone in the mountains.
What did he do up there?
"A lot of silly stupid things I'm not going to tell you," the actor laughs. "It was a moment of meditation where there is nothing to do and where you stop, your mind stops, and that is the key."