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- The Nativity Story
- SIGNIS Film Reviews: October 2006
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- SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS, MARCH 2006, SUPPLEMENT
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The Nativity Story
London, October 26, 2006 (Signis/Peter Malone) - On December 1st, 2006, most countries will see the release of The Nativity Story. It will roll out to other countries in the succeeding two weeks. It is a Mary story, an Advent and Christmas story which will appeal to ‘Christians in the pews’ and should have a helpful pastoral impact. As with The Passion of the Christ (though without the controversy), SIGNIS has prepared a comprehensive statement for its members and for anyone who would like to use part or all of it.
The Nativity Story is precisely that, a year in the life of Mary which culminates in the birth of Jesus, the visits of the shepherds and the magi to the stable, Herod’s brutal response in massacring the innocents and Joseph and Mary escaping to Egypt.
Most audiences will find a great deal to interest them, evoking their emotions concerning this story and its part in their religious memories, devotion and reflection on their Christian faith. It also offers a great deal of background to the infancy narratives of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels for those who are not Christians.
The Nativity Story , as a film, takes its place in quite a long list of films that portray Mary. While there are several films which focus on apparitions ( The Song of Bernadette , The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima , Gospa ) and films which have Mary as a character ( The Miracle ) as well as characters who parallel Mary’s story in some way ( Agnes of God ), the main film focus has been on Mary herself and her being the mother of Jesus.
A brief reminder of these films may be of interest, especially for comparisons with the treatment of Mary in The Nativity Story .
Mary appears in a number of the early silent films which dramatised the life of Jesus. They are now lost, although stills are often reproduced. Mary and the infancy stories were very popular as was her role at Cana and her being at the foot of the cross.
D.W. Griffith includes the sequence of the miracle of Cana in his 1916 biblical and historical epic, Intolerance . He also used a Mary image of the eternal mother rocking the cradle of children. Mary is also featured with reverence in many episodes of Cecil B. De Mille’s 1927 story of Jesus, The King of Kings .
From 1927 to 1961 when King of Kings was released - the first mainstream Gospel film in which Jesus spoke - there was an absence of Jesus films. This seems a strange phenomenon for such a long period which included the Depression, World War II and the early decade of the Cold War. By the early 1950s, with The Robe , Jesus was glimpsed or part of him was seen, like his lower legs and feet in the Crucifixion scene in The Robe or seen from the back in Ben Hur . Mary is seen as a crib like figure in the Bethlehem tableau.
It can be noted that independent Protestant film-makers, especially in the 1940s and 1950s had no hesitation in presenting Jesus as a fully seen and speaking character.
Four films from the period 1961-1971 really introduced the character of Mary to cinema. Irish actress, Siobhan McKenna played her in King of Kings and Dorothy McGuire in The Greatest Story every Told (1965). While they were full characterisations of Mary, the treatment tended to be of the very reverent and restrained kind. The danger with this kind of representation is that Mary seems to be something of a statue or painting come to life, but still the equivalent of a painting.
It was Italian directors who had most success in making Mary more of a flesh and blood character. As early as 1964, in Pasolini’s Gospel According to Matthew , the director cast a young girl for the nativity scenes and the flight into Egypt. She was not a professional actress and Pasolini wanted audiences to appreciate her youth and innocence and her response to what God was asking of her. When it came to the Passion sequences, he cast his mother. The weeping and wailing Mary at Calvary, rather Italian histrionic in style, was an older woman who had experienced life and suffered with her son. Roberto Rossellini also brought this Italian style to his 1971 The Messiah .
One of the most popular screen portraits of Mary is found in Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977). With its large scope and eight hour running time for television, the director had plenty of time to show Gospel scenes at length. Olivia Hussey was Mary, both as a young girl and as a mature woman. Zeffirelli and his writer, novelist Anthony Burgess, spent a great deal of time on the infancy narratives, including an Annunciation where the presence of the angel Gabriel is suggested rather than seen as well as the grief of the Crucifixion.
Audiences on either side of the Atlantic had different reactions to the Monty Python’s Life of Brian , North Americans tending to find it too irreverent, even blasphemous, while the British enjoyed the style of its satire. Whatever the reaction, it was another perspective, not so much on the Gospel stories as on the way they were solemnly treated in biblical epics. Brian’s mother was a screeching harridan, upbraiding the Magi on their visit (where they hurried away to the real birth of the Messiah up the street) and urging the gullible crowds away from the grown-up Brian with the now famous words, "He’s not the Messiah, he’s just a naughty boy".
Post-Python, it meant that the Gospel stories would have to be made differently and not leave themselves open to satire.
The late 70s and early 80s saw the popularity of the telemovie and the mini-series. Two Mary films came out of Hollywood. The first dealt with the same period that The Nativity Story covers, Mary and Joseph (1979). Reviewed poorly, it nevertheless had quite some appeal for younger audiences who were able to imagine what her experiences must have been like for Mary (even though the protagonists were particularly American in look and sound). There was also The Nativity , focusing on this same period and the birth of Jesus (1984).
The only appearance of Mary on the cinema screen during the 1980s was in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). All the characters here are shown as down to earth and earthy, in keeping with the origin of the film as a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis rather than a Gospel. One interesting appearance in this film is Mary, along with other guests, men and women, at the Last Supper.
Again, the 1990s did not have so many Gospel films (except for local religious groups in different countries making their own films for localised audiences). The Italian, Mary, Daughter of her Son , dramatised the life of Mary as did the French Mary of Nazareth , by French director, Jean Delannoy (1995) which was a rather literal rendition of the Gospels with many sequences hurried because of the small budget. But, from 1999 there have been quite a number.
These include a film explicitly named Mary , made for CBS television in anticipation of the Millennium. Mary is portrayed with great reverence by Pernille August. At the same time, there was a Jesus for the Millennium with Jeremy Sisto giving an attractive performance as a very human Jesus yet one who conveyed his sense of divinity. Mary appears quite extensively in this film, very much present during the public life and ministry of Jesus. She was played by Jacqueline Bissett.
Mary appears in the animated The Miracle Maker , in the television film, Judas , where the Annunciation is explained verbally as Mary talks to Judas in her kitchen. The Canadian-made The Gospel of John includes the complete text of the Gospel with Mary appearing at Cana and at Calvary. The appearance is confined by the use of the actual text.
Which leads to Mary in The Passion of the Christ (2004). Mel Gibson’s take on Mary shows her as older, with an inner serenity that manifests itself in profound, emotional but restrained grief. There are brief flashbacks to the very human Mary, anxious as the child Jesus trips and falls, a playful scene at Nazareth as Jesus makes a table and he splashes her as she urges him to his meal. She is shown in the company of Mary Magdalene, especially at the scourging after which they attempt to mop up Jesus’ blood and at the foot of the cross. Not only are there echoes of the Pieta, but Gibson has a prolonged take of the silent, sorrowing Mary staring straight to camera.
In forty five years, Mary has moved from devout and reverent Gospel figure to a flesh and blood character. This is the context for The Nativity Story at the end of 2006.
The presentation of Mary
There is very little detail about the life of Mary, especially before Jesus’ birth, in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. We know that she is from Nazareth and was betrothed to Joseph who is later referred to as a carpenter. We read the stories of the annunciation, Mary’s visit to her pregnant cousin, Elizabeth, Joseph’s bewilderment and dream and his taking Mary as his wife, the journey to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus in humble circumstances. Mary is described several times in Luke as "pondering all these things in her heart". While Luke evokes the story of Jesus’ presentation in the temple, his growing up in Nazareth and the journey to Jerusalem where he was lost and found, there is nothing else about Mary after the flight into Egypt.
The early Christian centuries saw imaginative speculation about Mary’s childhood, her betrothal and incidents in Jesus’ childhood. It is from these rather than scriptural writings that we learn names for Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne. There are the stories of the presentation of Mary in the Temple and fanciful stories of the choice of her husband: a story of Joseph’s rod, amongst all the other suitors’ rods, blooming into a lily. Another story involved a family helping Mary and Joseph on their way to Egypt and one of this family being Dismas who turned out to be the good thief on Calvary.
What writer Mike Rich has done with The Nativity Story is to set the historical scene, especially the tyrannical rule of Herod the Great, his heavy taxing of the people and his lavish building program. This establishes the situation of Roman rule in Palestine and the administration of Herod - offering the background to the census which requires Joseph to travel to Bethlehem.
Rich uses the opening of Luke’s Gospel with the prayer of Zachary in the Temple, Elizabeth’s unexpected pregnancy, Mary’s visit and the birth of the Baptist. This gives something of the religious background of the Judaism and religious practice of the time. What Rich does is to imagine what it was like to live in an impoverished Nazareth, find a language for Mary and her parents to communicate in, establish Joseph as a character and the plausibility of the betrothal. He uses the text from Luke, quite frequently verbatim, as well as Joseph’s dream from Matthew. The Magi story is an embroidering of Matthew and his references to Wise Men, stars and astronomy, and their coming from the East (with their costly gifts). The massacre of the innocents is also a Matthean story.
This means that the screenplay is a blend of biblical texts and scenes and some re-creation of period and what it might have been like in Nazareth. He has written his characters with empathy and insight so that these incidents are attractive and credible - though, as always, many will have particular reservations.
For an authentic portrait of Mary in her times, it is not simply historical background that is necessary but biblical background. This is where so many of the Mary presentations fail to give a rich portrait. Mary, Joseph, their relatives and friends and, of course, Jesus himself are the last figures of the Old Testament as well as being at the beginning of the New. This means that the Mary portrait needs to indicate aspects of the Old Testament as part of Mary’s religion and spirituality. The Nativity Story does this quite insightfully at times.
As has been noted, attention is given to the Temple rituals with Zachary’s turn as priest going into the Holy of Holies (with some Hebrew recited to remind us of the language of the bible). Later, Herod is present in the Temple for the ritual slaughter of a cow as part of a scapegoat ceremony for the removal of sins. When Joseph eats during the journey to Bethlehem, he prays a grace in Hebrew. This helps an Old testament atmosphere permeate the film.
Then there are explicit texts which are worth noting. The prologue is from Jeremiah highlighting the need for a saviour to come for salvation for the people. As regards the coming of the saviour, there is a very pleasing episode where a woman is teaching the scriptures to a group of children and Mary comes to deliver cheese. The teacher leads them in the text of God’s special presence on Horeb to Elijah. God is not in the fire. God is not in the wind. The children attest out loud that God is present in the gentle breeze. This recitation precedes Gabriel’s arrival and annunciation of God’s gentle incarnate presence. The text is later quoted by Elizabeth, and Mary joins in.
When Mary and Joseph arrive in Jerusalem, a street preacher is shouting texts (and is arrested and taken away). He is quoting the early chapters of Isaiah which herald the coming of a special saviour child. Herod is somewhat paranoid as regards threats to his throne and declares that it is a mistake not to take notice of prophecies. With the priests, and then with the Magi, he looks at the text from Micah about the saviour coming from Bethlehem. While the Magi are presented as more interested in details of astronomy, they are shown initially as studying ancient Hebrew texts and, on their way, they also quote from the book of Isaiah. This is the text which is the basis for stories of people from the East coming to Israel in search of the saviour.
Luke’s use of the Old Testament is a poetic use, weaving in strands and quotations from many of the books. Matthew is specific in naming prophecies that are being fulfilled and quoting them. One ’if only...’ would be that the screenplay had incorporated more of these to make the context richer. Where the screenplay excels is in its omission of Mary’s canticle, The Magnificat, from the Visitation story but making it the conclusion of the film. As the holy family go through the desert to Egypt, Mary proclaims many of the verses of the Magnificat (as the strains of Silent Night come up for the closing credits). With The Magnificat, the film ends on a biblical high.
The Nativity Story is not a theological work but it presents sound theology. The virginal conception of Jesus is clear from the way that the Annunciation is staged and the consequences for Mary and her reputation in Nazareth and Joseph’s dilemma as to what he should do about his betrothal and impending marriage. It is quite clear that the residents of Nazareth, including Mary’s close friends, girls her own age, take a very dim view of her pregnancy. We see Mary being stoned - although this is part of Joseph’s dream, it reminds us of the applications of the Mosaic law (remembering the story of the woman taken in adultery in John 8).
The Lukan narrative offers Elizabeth’s pregnancy as a sign for Mary. The film gives its full attention to the Zachary and Elizabeth story in Luke and Mary’s presence in her visitation for the last three month’s of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.
Jesus as saviour is to the fore in the film, especially with the allusions to Old Testament prophecy. Interestingly, this theme is emphasised in the Herod story, not only the discussion of the texts with the Magi but Herod’s initial reading of the texts that the Messiah from Bethlehem would be an adult. Hence his welcoming of the census. There is a sequence where Joseph is stopped and interrogated on his way to Bethlehem as the soldiers search for the alleged Messiah. It is only after the meeting with the Magi that Herod looks for a newborn child.
The more conventional presentation of the manger and the crib, with the visit of the shepherds and the gifts of the Magi, reinforce the perspective of the divinity of Jesus in conditions that are witness to his humanity.
It might be useful to make some distinctions between piety, devotion and spirituality, even if they overlap.
Piety is a simple religious appreciation of a mystery of faith. The Nativity Story offers a grounding for Marian piety though its style is not particularly pious. It is only the presentation of the Nativity itself, especially the manger sequences with their tableau of baby, mother and Joseph, the animals and the visits of shepherds and Magi and light beaming (rather too much like a celestial searchlight from the symbolic start) on the stable, that the film could be described as pious. These scenes are like a Christmas play, very different from the more down-to-earth scenarios that have preceded them.
Rather, the film offers more for devotion for believers. Devotion is more an attitude of mind and heart that is deeper than piety. Devotion means that there are consequences for belief, stronger understanding of the mysteries of faith and the overflow into prayer, whether it be the saying of prayers (the Rosary, of course, comes to mind) or a more wordless, meditative prayer.
Audiences interested in devotion to Mary should be well satisfied. Only at the nativity itself is she the Madonna. Prior to that, she is a credible young girl who experiences God in an extraordinary way and allows this experience to shape her life. She is ordinary in the best sense, audiences being able to identify with her and her experience, especially the months of her pregnancy and the journey from Nazareth. She is not presented as the moving equivalent of a statue or a holy card as was the case in some previous films. This Mary is real.
Audiences who have a devotion to Joseph will be very happy with this portrayal. Here is a vigorous young man, down-to-earth, puzzled but honourable. He is presented as a three-dimensional character, definitely not a statue. The scenes where he discusses with Mary what it will be like with Jesus and whether they will be able to teach him bring the reality of the incarnation alive in pleasant detail.
Spirituality is the foundation of piety and devotion. Spirituality is a way of life in prayer and action. The Nativity Story was not intended as a spiritual cinema work But much of it will work this way. Some devotions separate out particular aspects of Mary’s life. By telling a story of Mary in the year before Jesus’ birth, a credible story imagining what that year might have been like, the film gives us Mary as a person. Mary is presented in real situations, difficult situations of poverty, hardship and taxation. She is presented in an almost impossible situation, her pregnancy outside marriage and the consequences for her and Joseph amidst her own people. We see her developing as a girl, a young woman of surrender and faith - which culminates in joy in the birth of Jesus. The film ends with her Magnificat prayer but not the promise of an easy happy ending as she escapes with Joseph into Egypt.
One striking thing about the screenplay is Mary’s awareness of Messiah’s in her time. Some commentators suggest that Mary was privy to the details of God’s plan from the time she encountered the angel Gabriel. Others emphasise what she did not know and how, gradually, she had to learn what her motherhood of Jesus meant. With the prevalence of upstart revolutionaries against Herod and against Rome at that tome, with the prevalence of Messiah claimants, it was ’in the air’ so to speak that Messiah’s would be born. To that extent, Mary’s listening to Gabriel and learning of her destiny would not be at all unknown or alien to her.
By way of review.
The Nativity Story is a worthy enterprise that, by and large, comes off well. It is also a modest enterprise. It is to the credit of New Line Cinema that they were prepared to venture into this kind of religious film-making. Of course, the box-office success of The Passion of the Christ and the realisation that there was an audience for this kind of religious film was an encouragement. Screenwriter Mike Rich ( The Rookie , Finding Forrester ) has a church background and a respect for his biblical sources. Director Catherine Hardwicke ( Thirteen , Lords of Dogtown ) was an architect and production designer before her work as a director and she brings a detailed eye to sets and the re-creation of the era. She has brought a personal devotion to the enterprise as well as a female perspective to the story.
New Zealand actress, Keisha Castle-Hughes ( Whale Rider ) fits the role of the young girl, Mary, very well - a bit stern at first but mellowing when Joseph accepts her. Oscar Isaac as Joseph brings him to life. The Iranian actress, Shohreh Aghdashloo is Elizabeth and the Israeli actress Hiam Abbass is the mother of Mary. The whole cast, quite international, performs with the same slightly accented English.
As has been noted, the screenplay is well-grounded in the biblical texts, both the heritage of the Old Testament as well as the text and spirit of the Gospel infancy narratives. This gives the film an advantage over narratives which limit the perspective to a literal reading of texts and rely on piety traditions for visual presentation. It has also been noted that the screenplay offers substantial historical background to understand Palestine in these times and how the characters were influenced by their environment as well as by the harshness of authorities.
As with the apocryphal gospels of the early Christian centuries, the film is imaginatively inventive concerning incidents not in the Gospels as well as presenting scenes which are. Nazareth was not an easy place to live in. The residents were poor and oppressed, especially by taxation. This had its consequences on work in the town, the fields and harvests, the making of basic foods and selling them, the work of builders and carpenters. This is the credible and realistic setting of the film. The other major invention is that of the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. This is a very pleasing part of the film, giving enough time for us to appreciate the hardships (lack of food, desert crossings, dangerous rocky paths, the swirling Jordan, the approach to Jerusalem with road blocks, wayside preachers, fortune tellers, the bustle of the city) as well as conversation between Mary and Joseph about the future.
When the screenplay uses direct texts from the Gospels as part of the drama, it is not so effective. They move too quickly. This is the case when Mary arrives at Elizabeth’s house and, barely, turning round Elizabeth utters the greeting verbatim from Luke and the acknowledgement of Mary as the mother of the Lord.
There are a lot of Magi sequences (too many) with more emphasis on the astronomy than on the Hebrew texts they also quote. Their differing characters provide touches of broad humour as well. On the other hand Ciaran Hinds is a sinister, egoistic and paranoid Herod - with a rather oily Antipas, his son, giving him sinister advice.
There will be some discussion about some of the visuals, especially the appearance of Gabriel. He is a voice only for Zachary. He is a swiftly place-changing physical presence to Mary (although the annunciation works quite well when it is filmed in close-ups of Mary and Gabriel in conversation). He appears briefly in Joseph’s dream. There is a bird motif at various moments representing the Holy Spirit that is sometimes too long and obvious. The star and the light shining on the crib is too static and Christmas card-like. The Silent Night ending seems a bit much but, on the other hand, it evokes memories of Christmas for the audience.
The appeal of the film is to the Christian audience which should welcome it - with the hope that it will have a wider appeal to non-Christians.
Study Guide: in conjunction with the release of the film, a study guide, written by Sr Rose Pacatte FSP, has been published by Pauline Media, Boston. Sr Rose has also edited a series of essays by women on Mary, also published by Pauline Media, Boston.