Posted: 07/04/2006


Mary Magdalen: An Intimate Portrait


by Karen Petruska

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As a self-professed defender of Mary Magdalen’s honor, I was intrigued to learn about the DVD release of a Lifetime Channel documentary entitled Mary Magdalen: An Intimate Portrait. Until recently, Mary Magdalen was best known as a prostitute forgiven by Jesus. Then Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code made Mary Magdalen a household name by claiming that she was the lover of Jesus. Indeed, the cover of this documentary DVD refers to The Da Vinci Code as an attempt to tap into the popularity of the novel and to the theological response to it (an entire cottage industry has developed in Christian circles to respond to Dan Brown’s novel). But in fact the documentary was filmed before the infamous novel was published. Still, Mary Magdalen carries with her enough controversy to make the documentary deeply engaging, even without Mr. Brown.

Divided into three basic sections, the film examines the historical Mary Magdalen as a follower of Jesus, Pope Gregory the Great’s transformation of her into a prostitute in the Middle Ages, and recent attempts to restore her true identity as a powerful female leader. Director of Mary Magdalen, Charles Stuart provides visual variety through a combination of narrative, talking head interviews, a couple of dreamy reenactments, and by displaying a virtual encyclopedia of artistic renderings of Mary Magdalen.

Hosted by Penelope Ann Miller, the film lacks the slickness of cinematic documentaries like March of the Penguins and Welcome to Columbine. The film exposes its roots in television in the cuts that allowed for commercial breaks. As a continuous film on DVD, these edits jar the flow of the story and lend the documentary an amateur feel. Miller plays host with an off-putting gravitas that borders on anger: she speaks as if she is ready for a fight. Yet despite these technical drawbacks, Stuart treats his subject with the utmost seriousness and sincerity.

Developed for a general audience, the script never delves too deeply into theology, gender studies, or other feminist scholarship that is largely credited with the redemption of Mary Magdalen. Yet sometimes I wondered if a non-Christian audience would follow the story. References to the four gospel writers are perfectly obvious to me as a product of sixteen years of Catholic education, but would a non-Christian know offhand that the word “synoptic” references the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? That said, Stuart’s attempt to prevent direct espousals of dogma allows a non-Christian audiences to enjoy the film. He includes interviews with religious leaders, including Catholic priests and female Protestant leaders, but he also interviews non-religious artists about their connection with Magdalen. Exploring the impact of Mary Magdalen upon society in general rather than solely through the lens of faith, Stuart reflects Magdalen’s extra-theological importance.

Stuart brings to light the power dynamic within Magdalen’s transformation into a whore through his juxtaposition of varied authorities. Some of the interviewees are angry that Magdalen’s reputation was manipulated by Pope Gregory for his own ends, while others continue to think of Magdalen as a wanton woman because her very sexuality defies patriarchal control. Stuart’s conclusion embraces the mystery that surrounds Magdalen’s real life and legacy, inviting the audience to embrace whatever aspect of Magdalen empowers their own life.

The DVD does not include many extras. A short bibliography references the source material for the script, though a film credit acknowledges the greatest debt to one author’s work: Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor by Susan Haskins (she is featured in the film as one of the interviewees). Another extra details every reference to Mary Magdalen contained in the four synoptic gospels. For Magdalen lovers, the documentary provides a satisfying, if generalized, overview of her life and impact: it plays like a greatest hits collection. But for those unfamiliar with her life or legacy, this documentary unfolds an amazing story of one woman’s passion and power.

V.I.E.W. Video is proud to present the award-winning Lifetime cable program Mary Magdalen: An Intimate Portrait for the first time on DVD.

Karen Petruska is a film critic living in Chicago.

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