Bringing ‘Mary’ to the masses

We could not be happier to have been brought on board by Universal Pictures for Mary Magdalene. Our team caught an early preview of the film and were completely knocked out by it: and we knew that our many contacts in the UK church community would find it captivating too.

In a way, the film is quite an unusual proposition. It’s a biblical drama which makes a serious engagement with the person of Jesus and the Gospel accounts – but it’s more concerned with the spirit than the letter. It’s not a ‘Christian’ film, but people of faith who come to it with an open mind will find a rich and rewarding experience. For those who don’t believe, it’s a reminder of the fertile ground that biblical stories can still offer for creative exploration.

The A-List talent behind the film and the care and respect with which it’s been crafted make Mary Magdalene unmissable cinema.

Damaris Media got the word out partly through a series of screenings in the months leading up to the film’s release. Our guests were influencers from across the UK Christian scene – journalists, editors, broadcasters, bloggers, charity leaders, pastors, theologians and more. A lucky handful, including me, even got to attend the star-studded official premiere.

This event took us all out on a freezing, snowy night to the National Gallery in London. The team behind the film was there, including the director, producers, cast, and screenwriters – composer Jóhann Jóhannsson tragically passed away in February shortly before completing the score, and his absence was obviously felt by his colleagues, who paid tribute to him in their speeches.

Garth Davis, Tahar Rahim, Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix and Chiwetel Ejiofor, photographed at the reception by the National Gallery

(Pleasingly, Joaquin Phoenix in person appears to be just the shambling oddball as you’d imagine. Rooney Mara is a tiny porcelain beauty, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is a snappy dresser.)

I’d read a lot of people waxing lyrical about director Garth Davis in interviews, calling him a ‘special soul’ and a unique, intuitive artist (something which I definitely feel is borne out by his previous film, Lion, and by Mary Magdalene itself). He gave a very sweet and heartfelt introductory speech about the film’s message of love and compassion. It’s obvious that, though he’s not a religious believer himself, Davis has approached this project from a place of utmost sincerity.

Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus

The premiere audience was made up of the usual London media types (including Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw, in a bad mood judging by his very unfair review), people who’d worked on the film, and an eclectic mix of other interested parties. Searching for our guests at the reception after the screening, I approached a man with a dog collar and found myself in a long conversation with a Catholic priest, which became mildly surreal when we were joined by Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery.

The Catholic gentleman had reservations about the film, which he felt was too sombre, and I passionately disagreed with him. What became clear was that Mary Magdalene is provocative. Not in the cheap sense of setting out to offend, but in its ability to spark strong feelings and stir debate. It’s in the nature of the subject matter (which, as my interviewees in our Messiah blog series have noted, gets short shrift in culture generally), and it’s in the film’s own questioning, reflective spirit.

This provocative power has been clear, too, in the thoughtful and varied responses we’ve had from our guests at all of the screenings. Whether they loved Mary Magdalene or not, no two reactions were the same. Film at its best is deeply personal, and our relationship to it is inextricable from our own values, perspectives and life experiences. Real art doesn’t preach: it opens up possibilities.

Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene

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Sophie Lister is the editor of the Damaris Media blog

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Sophie Lister

Damaris resources bring films to new audiences, start conversations, and enrich lives. Find out more at Here at the Damaris Film Blog, we publish regular discussion guides to help you make the most of the latest cinema releases.