The Nativity Story

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Today is the scheduled debut of the new film “Nativity,” the story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth to Mary and Joseph.

Several weeks ago, I was invited to preview the film. With so much breaking news and significant travel (I am writing from Istanbul), I have yet to write a thorough review, and quite honestly I don’t have much time now either! But I did want to post a few simple lines in case you are wondering what to expect.

In my opinion, the film is worth the view and is appropriate for all audiences.

It is a faithful and respectful representation of the Gospel story of the harrowing personal and spiritual journey of Mary and Joseph as they prepare for the birth of Jesus.

The multi-tiered drama will keep your attention throughout its 90 minutes, a significant accomplishment given the audience already knows the outcome. Mary and Joseph confront various obstacles in a profoundly human way. Viewers will be able to relate to the cultural shame of an unwed pregnancy, the interior struggle of understanding God’s exceptional plan for their lives, and the real and present danger of protecting their family from external threats (in this case, that of a pagan king who ordered the killing of their only child).

I applaud the filmmakers and actors for a successful attempt at communicating in the modern language of film an ancient story that transformed world history. The film’s outstanding quality is its catechetical nature — teaching the faith. It is a perfect opportunity for un-churched Christian parents, who feel uncomfortable teaching their children about their faith (because they themselves don't know it well), to pass on the real story of Christmas.

That being said, I was a bit disappointed in how the director and actors portrayed a few key scenes. The big downer was the moment of the apparition of the Angel Gabriel to Mary to announce the virgin birth of the Messiah. It was apparent that either the director, Catherine Hardwicke, or the actress who played Mary, Keisha Castle-Hughes, didn’t get it. For Christians, this moment is what theology calls the “Incarnation” — the moment when God became man — earth-shattering! In the film, the scene comes and goes with little impact.

The embarrassing news that 17-year-old actress, Keisha Castle-Hughes, is pregnant and will soon be an unwed mother herself, lends credence to my hunch that, while giving a formidable performance, she never identified fully with the Virgin Mary character she portrayed.

For fans of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” they will miss in “Nativity” the theological and spiritual depth that moved “Passion” audiences to tears. Why the contrast? Mel Gibson made his movie in response to a personal spiritual journey. It was fruit of his meditation about what the passion and crucifixion would have looked like, and why it was important.

This is not the feeling I got while watching “Nativity,” though I do no know the personal story of the filmmakers.

How will this film do in the box office? I think it will do well, but I don't think it will be a blockbuster. While controversy propelled “The Passion” to a big release, it was the quality of the film that made it a massive success. "Nativity" is a well-made film, but it is not a masterpiece.

One last note before signing off — my reference to “The Passion” reminded me of a movie review I read earlier today by Roger Friedman of Gibson’s new film “Apocalypto.” Roger is a fellow contributor to In the spirit of respectful disagreement, I submit that his article is way off the mark. Roger writes:

"Apocalypto" surpasses "The Passion" in every way as a movie about pain, flagellation, and wounding. The grotesqueries are almost numbing, and at some point, they become laughable. But all the while, you're thinking, what's the point here? If "Apocalypto" was supposed to be about that transitional civilization, where is it? After two hours and several minutes of squirming and covering eyes, you start to think that "Apocalypto" exists just to show violence for itself. The point is lost.

Several weeks ago, I posted my impressions of “Apocalypto” after seeing a rough cut in a private showing in Los Angeles. Unless Gibson decided to add scenes or modify significantly the story line, I think Roger overreacted.

The film is not for children, and contains several scenes that, for my sensibilities, were over the top. But as a whole, I found “Apocalypto” to be riveting entertainment and a valuable contribution of social, historic, and moral commentary.

I can’t wait to hear what you think of “Nativity” and “Apocalypto.”

God bless, Father Jonathan

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