The Nativity Story
I thought the movie did a fine job, better than most, of depicting the sense of semetic village life in Palestine - olive groves, small grain plots, goat hide tanners, homemade goat's cheese, etc. The last item reminded me of stories my first Arabic teacher would tell me of growing up in pre-'48 Palestine and making homemade cheeses and yogurts in her grandmother's kitchen and her particular relish of a fine chevre rolled in a light dusting of ash. The movie also did a fine job of depicting the brooding pressure of Roman/Herodian 'tax farming' necessary to support the lives of the wealthy although one may nitpick that young girls may not have been 'confiscated' for back taxes as the movie portrayed. Certainly slavery and servitude was a commonplace in the Mediterranean in the time.
Many of the actors hie from a Middle Eastern background, with some, like the great actress Hiam Abbas (playing the role of St. Anna; see also her superb performance in The Syrian Bride). Ms. Abbas actually being a Palestinian of Israeli nationality who speaks both Arabic and Hebrew, provided an authenticity to the film rare in 'Bible movies.' I am reminded that those we call and who call themselves 'Arab' in much of the Levant today may often have as much or more ancient Jewish/early Christian ancestry as actual Arabian desert Islamic Bedu ancestry. Because of politics, admitting or suggesting such ancestry may be offensive, but it seems the moniker 'Palestinian' or 'Syrian' or 'Lebanese' or 'Egyptian' may have more meaning, or at least equal ancestral meaning, as 'Arab' except as that term means 'Arabic speaking.' I digress, but the point of the digression is that we can yet see that the ways of life in parts of the Middle East now are in not much entirely different than in the First Century, because the people are not really that much different in culture.
As I watched the movie, I thought about reviews that said the whole thing was plain dull boring. Nothing new to see here, they proclaimed. Predictable. Read the story in the Bible. I did not see it so. Perhaps I am a sap, but I was nearly moved to tears at moments, such as the scene when St. Mary comes to St. Elizabeth's house and St. Elizabeth greets the mother of her Lord. Perhaps some would think the appearance of the Archangel Gabriel and the angelic visitation to Zechariah as he offered incense in the Temple so tepid and lackluster to be 'unbelievabile.'
It seems that we are reduced to this now, in our age of Bruckheimer, Spielberg, Lucas, the Matrix and the like, that unless the miraculous is embued with far-out special effects it is, well, not miraculous.
I rather liked that in the movie there was little of the stunning effect. St. Zechariah sees his angel, but not cowering in the corner as the angel comes in a blast of light and pulsating THX surround sound. No, it is a small voice, and vision of flame amidst the smoke of incense.
Mary encounters Gabriel, but it is a quiet, private moment. St. Elizabeth knows it is the mother of her Lord, but it is still a simple scene of two mothers with babes in their wombs. She does not have a 'flash' of blinding light or some other effects-based moment of wonder. In short, the miraculous is seemingly presented as requiring less fanfare because the people are more clearly aware of the possibility and existence of the miraculous. They don't require being flattened by supernatural light and sound. Moreover, the simplicity of the miracle moments actually challenges my belief. Would I recognize such a visitation, or am I as deaf and blind as all the rest (you know the answer - the latter).
This portrayal in the movie comports with my experience of many Arabic speaking peoples I have met - this sensitivity to the possibility of the miraculous - and it seems to be something we lose in our society with each new mega-effects blockbuster. I wonder whether my children will, as the years go on, be able to be in touch with the possibility of miracle in simple ways.
Moving on, I wondered what effect playing St. Mary had on the star, Keisha Castle-Hughes. The newspaper said she was pregnant at/by the end of the movie, being 16, perhaps about the age St. Mary was found with child by the Holy Spirit. Did this movie touch her in some way? How does it make her feel about her own impending motherhood?
Some have criticized that the movie takes away from the majesty of the Church's traditional story because it takes away from the poetic and theological virtue of the story as it is taught through our liturgy and prayer. Moreover, some have criticized that Joseph needed to be older, or maybe Mary isn't quite 'holy' enough in portrayal.
Again, I may be a sap, but the movie used a 30-something actor for Joseph, with the 16 year old Castle-Hughes as Mary. They do not play out the widower piece with Joseph's other children (which is a loss to the story), but a 30-year old in Palestine would have been a not unsuitable age for Joseph to have been married and lost his first wife and be left with children. So the ages are OK and believable even if one could also imagine him older. If there is a nit, it is with Joachim and Anna, in that there is no portrayal of their preparation of Mary by sending her to the Temple (as per tradition). One could envision that the screenwriter could have used the hopes for her purity as the vehicle for their great disappointment in finding her pregnant rather than simply the ordinary concern of pious parents about the grave possibility that their daughter could be taken out and stoned. Nevertheless, the film's portrayal was real enough, and touching enough.
And for those with an eye to traditional imagery, there was plenty to be seen if one is attentive. First, the use of a cave-stable with a hole where the light of the star passes into the cave and on the holy family reminds one of the typical Orthodox nativity icon. The soldier stooping to look into the cave and finding the empty manger with a swaddling cloth both reminds one of impending Resurrection and the empty tomb, as well as the icons of Nativity where the child's swaddling cloths look like a burial wrap.
Second, as Mary and Joseph cross the stream (Jordan?), a small 'adventure moment' in the movie, a serpent gets in the water and causes the donkey to throw Mary into the drink. Again, in the icons of Jesus baptism in the Jordan, we see the serpents in the water. The connection also with the enmity of Mary (the new Eve) and the serpent is hinted at, as well as, perhaps, a foreshadowing of the fall from the triumph of Palm Sunday (riding the donkey towards Jerusalem) to the descent into the baptism of suffering of Holy Friday.
There are other examples of this, but enough to say that I found the film likeable enough and meaningful enough that it will find a place next to the 'Passion of the Christ' and 'Jesus of Nazareth' on my film collection rack. Let the detractors want super special light and sound or a new twist on the old story of great wonder. This movie rings close in my heart to the reality of God in our lives - the Word made flesh and dwelling among us.