Joaquin Phoenix plays the role of Jesus in the newly released film, Mary Magdalene. It is one of these new, now predictable, “Jesus films” which takes its cues from one of the Gnostic gospels rather than the actual Gospels of the New Testament. This so-called Gospel is known as the Gospel of Mary and was discovered in 1896. This is no longer surprising or shocking. Once Dan Brown gave us The Da Vinci Code, we were off to the races.
However, what is shocking is what happened during the filming of one of those moments of the film which is actually found in the canonical Gospels. It is the account of Jesus healing the blind man and using mud and spittle, which he places on the man’s eyes and he is healed (See, John 9:6). The scene was largely intended to follow the biblical account, except that they have Jesus healing a woman rather than a man. Nevertheless, the actor Joaquin Phoenix refused to do what the script called him to do. Here are his own words (with the profanity omitted): “I thought: I’m not going to rub dirt in her eyes. Who the f*!# would do that? It doesn’t make any sense. That is a horrible introduction to seeing.”
This is where we realize that Joaquin Phoenix should never play the role of Jesus, even in a second-rate Gnostic film. We have all heard the stories about how the lead characters in films spend many months, sometimes over a year, learning and studying the character they are intending to portray. Daniel Day Lewis spent months pouring himself into the literature of the 19th century, reading hundreds of Lincoln’s correspondences, so that he could portray Lincoln in the award winning Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln (the film was eventually nominated for twelve academy awards). More recently, you may have seen the new film, The Best of Enemies, which portrays the unlikely reconciliation which happened between a civil rights’ leader and the head of the Ku Klux Klan. It is a powerful story of redemption based on the true story of C.P. Ellis (the Klan leader) and Ann Atwater, a well-known civil rights activist. Both actors spent many months carefully studying the civil rights movement and what it was like to live through the desegregation of the school systems. The film will likely win some significant awards.
This will not happen with Mary Magdalene. If Joaquin Phoenix had spent even a few weeks studying the Gospels, and in particular, the account of the mud on the man’s eyes, he would have recognized how symbolic this act was in the ministry of Jesus. In Genesis, we learn that we were created from dirt and dust: “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” In John 9 Jesus’ healing of the blind man is highly symbolic of Jesus’ entire ministry of bringing light into the world. The coming of Jesus is like the dawn of a new creation. Jesus re-enacts the original creation account by placing mud on his eyes and then speaking the word to him, just as the first creation where God takes dust and then speaks/breathes His word into us that we might live. Jesus is the Lord of the “new creation” and the use of dirt in the healing account is central to our understanding of what is going on.
Rather than a profanity-laced dismissal of the stupidity of Jesus, Phoenix might have taken his cue from other notable actors who take time to enter into and understand the world of the character they are portraying. If this incident is any indication, that likely didn’t happen. While some films make the rounds for a season but quickly fade into obscurity, it’s the ones that invest serious attention to the world’s they are portraying that endure the test of time. Erring in this way, Mary Magdalene is likely to soon be forgotten.