The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
This beautifully photographed story of the events leading up to the birth of Jesus seems to combine two styles of filmmaking—a naturalistic one wonderfully evoking village life in Roman-occupied Palestine, and then after Mary’s birth cries have died away, a Hallmark greeting card style that is lovely to look at, but so far removed from the earlier style that it is jarring Although I found the last few minutes disappointing (except for the very last scene in which the Holy Family ride across the Egyptian sand dunes while Mary recites a portion of the Magnificat), the bulk of the film is so good that I am glad that New Line is promoting it.
Keisha Castle-Hughes (she played another strong female in Whale Rider) is a wonderful Mary, playful in the company of her teenaged friends, not at all pleased at first by her father’s betrothing her to Joseph, awestruck and submissive when the angel announces that she will mother the Messiah, and duly courageous when she returns, very much pregnant, from her visit with Elizabeth and has to face Joseph, her parents, and the neighbors. The rest of the cast is excellent, too: Oscar Isaac as Joseph, kind and fair-minded; and Shoreh Aghdashloo as Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist and warm supporter of her young cousin.
The filmmakers have captured well what daily life in Nazareth must have been like. We see women turning the small grinders for meal and gathering at the well to fill their clay water jars. Young people work in the vineyard, and sometimes engage in play. Occasionally an arrogant Roman soldier enters the scene, and later during the journey we see harsh Roman justice meted out in the form of crucified prisoners along the way. Mary receives two shocks: her father’s decision to accept Joseph’s offer of marriage to her (she is shown as at first upset by this), and then, when she goes off to be alone, the angel appears announcing that she will become pregnant with the Messiah. No wonder she is glad to go off and visit her cousin Elizabeth, whom, the angel has revealed, is also going to have a child. The older and younger women bond immediately, joined by their being chosen as instruments of God’s grace.
The filmmakers add a few touches of humor that also humanize the characters. Often switching to Persia, they show the three Magi – Melchior the scholar, Gaspar the skeptical translator and Balthasar the Ethiopian astronomer—as bickering at times, one of them refusing to follow the star (explained as a conjunction of planets). The other two set out, but are soon joined by the third, who explains his change of mind, “You forgot the maps.” After the birth of John the Baptist, the infant is subjected to the rite of circumcision: some small boys blanch at this, quickly turning away as the knife is wielded. There are also, of course, the evil characters, King Herod (Ciaran Hinds) and his son Antipas (Alessandro Giuggioli), who out of fear send the soldiers to destroy the male infants of Bethlehem when the magi fail to return to him.
Director Catherine Hardwicke and screenwriter Mike Rich (writer of Finding Forrester and The Rookie) have worked hard to bring us two believable humans whom the church has turned into stained glass saints. Whereas Luke in his gospel tells the story of the journey in just a couple of lines, the filmmakers show what a long and difficult journey it must have been, especially for the pregnant Mary. They also show how Mary’s affection and respect for Joseph grew stronger as he kept his promise to her parents, “I will protect your daughter and the child, with all that I am.”
1) What are the sources of the Nativity story? How have they been blended together in the script? This is always one of the first decisions that has to be made by those wanting to retell the story of Christ birth. Compare this film with the Nativity depictions in: The Greatest Story Ever Told; King of Kings; Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew; Jesus; The Miracle Maker; Jesus, the Miniseries. Which of the films leaves out either the visit of the shepherds or that of the magi? Why?
2) What were some of the touches designed to show the humanity of Mary, and what do you think of them? Is this Mary like the plaster statues in churches, or a Palestinian teenager?
3) How does the film effectively show what the pregnant Mary must have faced upon her return from her stay with Elizabeth and Zecheriah?
4) What are the various theories as to the nature of the Christmas star, and what do you think of the one that the filmmakers decided upon?
4) How was the encounter with the old shepherd a nice moment of grace?
5) What did you think of the way in which the visit of the shepherds and the magi were handled? Do you agree that the scenes seemed artificial (remember the stream of light from the star illuminating Mary as if it were a cosmic spotlight?), or did they satisfy you?
6) As in past years, there will be Hollywood films using Christmas either as a backdrop to a story or suggest that some sentimental kindness is the “real meaning” of the season. How is this film “the real deal” when it comes to the meaning of Christmas?