Set in the Mid Pyrenees region in southern France and based upon historical events, Magdala Rose is a gripping Medieval drama. The film tells the story of a pacifist Christian group, the Cathars, who have been declared heretical by the Roman Catholic church and are being pursued unto death.
This peaceful group have found final refuge in the isolated, loftily located, Montsegur Castle owned by Raymond de Pereille. Also, inside the castle are some of the famed Knights Templar. However, these skilled protectors are vastly outnumbered by the thousands of papists in pursuit of the Cathars.
Thankfully, according to legend and as portrayed here, there are a few escapees from the intended fate of captivity and execution. It is their journey which is integral to the cinematic story being told.
Magdala Rose is written and directed by Dr Paul Day of Angel Studios in Brisbane. It is his fourth feature film and a switch from the previous genre of Sci-fi. In addition to screenwriting and directing, Dr Day is also the Cinematographer and writer of the film’s haunting soundtrack.
In the context of Medieval France, the immediate viewer expectation is that the dialogue will be delivered in King James vernacular in fake French accents. That stereotypical step has been skilfully avoided. Whilst I was initially surprised to hear Australian accents speaking contemporary English, it is an effective choice and the storyline of Magdala Rose unfolds unimpeded. Unlike a book or play with text which can be scrutinised until understood, a film must immediately convey meaning or message.
Having recently completed Don Quixote, I thought it may be difficult to get beyond my newly acquired parodical viewpoint of medievality and chivalry. This sobering film however, immediately immersed me in the horrible gravity of true and terrible moments in church history which are vividly relived on screen.
A film plot which includes a castle, knights and distressed damsels in imminent danger, is at risk of descent into stereotypical romance, predictable battle scenes or unintended Don Quixotic parody. These hazards are aptly avoided. The women featured in Magdala Rose are not weak or syncopal. They are strong, courageous and outspoken decision makers.
They perplex noblemen and knights and seek solutions not romantic rescue. Another danger avoided in the film is the dressing of the ladies in flowing, filmy gowns reminiscent of Renaissance portraits. That would have been beautiful but a detraction from the conveyed strength and courage of these women who are modestly and practically clothed.
One of the film’s strengths is its commitment to authenticity of setting, scene and artefact. That striving has successfully and realistically grounded the story in its era and the accurate portrayal of tragic but true events.
The pervasive hypocrisy of extreme religiosity is clearly shown in the gluttony, lust and cruelty of the papist zealots pursuing the Cathars with punitive intent. Their righteous shouts of religious zeal are shamed by the realisation that their targets are peaceful, unarmed peoples and include women and children.
Excellent casting in Magdala Rose captures that imbalance of abused power and creates a sense of something much stronger than irony. Violent scenes are not the focus of this film which, whilst it has characters with strength, somehow emanates a gentle affect and flow of peace. Perhaps that is reflective of the complex creativity of its creator.
In addition to his other roles, Paul Day as cinematographer, skilfully and effectively utilises a range of varied angles and distances throughout the film which is in widescreen format for cinematic viewing. Particularly poignant are some of the scenes shot from above ‘bird’s eye’ viewpoint.
Magdala Rose is a moving, memorable and commendable film. I suspect it has layers of artistry, symbolism or meaning which are beyond my ability to perceive or evaluate. Magdala Rose was released in 2019 and in the international independent film sector has collected or been nominated for many awards as follow:
2019 Australian Screen Industry Awards: Best Feature Film, Best Producer – Katrina Maffey, Best Writer/Screenplay – Paul Day, Best Actress – Katie Anderson, Best Supporting Actress- Pennyanne Lace, and Best Actor (tie) – Wesley Ford; Nice International Film Festival: Winner Historical Education Award; Antwerp International Film Festival: Best Lead Actress – Katie Anderson; and 2021 Barcelona IFF nominations: Best Feature Film and Best Supporting Actress – Bella Rose.
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Image: Magdala Rose (film still) – courtesy of Angel Studios
Review: Michele-Rose Boylan