Imagine this scene from The Nativity Story: a weary-looking Joseph is leading a donkey bearing the very pregnant Mary down a rocky road into Bethlehem when Mary chooses to announce, “Joseph, the baby is pressing.” “Now?” says Joseph. She nods, starts to look like she might actually feel some pain, and, right on cue, hectic, frantic music starts to play . . . and it’s “Hark, how the bells, sweet silver bells, all seem to say, throw cares away.”
Argh!!!!! Why? Why? I went to the movie hoping to escape the cloying pseudo-Christmas music that’s playing everywhere, and yet it forces upon me one of the most annoying “Christmas” songs ever, totally robbing the moment of any dramatic force it could have had.
Sadly, “Carol of the Bells” is not the only European Christmas carol tucked into the score of The Nativity Story: the first notes heard in the film are the strains of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” which wouldn’t be bad, if the rest of the film weren’t peppered with “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” “Lully, Lullay” (yup, right when Herod orders the Massacre of the Innocents), and, of course, “Silent Night,” which almost covers up Mary’s belated version of the Magnificat. Really, it’s like the filmmakers are sending Mary the message: “Shut up about all this revolutionary stuff and be serene.”
Nativity Story isn’t a terrible movie. It does stay pretty close to the biblical record, except for a lot of time-condensing (which, as is usual in Christmas pageants, allows the shepherds and the wise men to be at the manger at the same time, creating a nice little tableau—grr!). But, overall, it seems to want to present viewers with the comforting and familiar, with a few exotic cultural trappings here and there. I’d much prefer a movie that took the familiar and re-invested it with a sense of strangeness and wonder—which is hard to do when there are Christmas carols playing.
Other than the music—which, for me, just serves as a symbol of the larger problems with the movie, the portrayal of Mary irritated me most. We were promised beforehand that the edgy director Catherine Hardwicke would present a strong, real Mary. But, as I said to Porpoise yesterday after the movie, “Mary might as well have been a cow.” A little bit harsh, yes, but really all she does through the movie is look thoughtful (chew cud, chew cud) and beatific. I think, from Hardwicke’s interview comments, that she was trying to go for a Mary who is strong in quietness, which is fine with me, but that’s not really what comes across. I’m not sure where the flaw lies. The screenwriters could have given her more lines, but since whenever they did give her lines, they were usually cheesy voiceovers designed to tell us what she was thinking (which was usually not very interesting), that may not have been the answer. As excellent an actress as Keisha Castle-Hughes is supposed to be (I’ve never seen Whale Rider), I think some of the fault may also rest with her (and with Hardwicke’s direction of her). Her eyes, while beautiful, don’t really communicate anything.
In contrast, take Oscar Isaac’s Joseph, who is the best part of the film. His Joseph doesn’t have many lines, and yet he communicates so much through his eyes, his body language, and his actions. Granted, it seems like it’s always easier to dramatize Joseph, as he’s sort of one step farther removed from the divine responsibility of bringing God Incarnate into the world. His dilemmas seem more understandably human. But this is why we so need a portrayal of Mary that captures her simultaneously bold and humble responses to her dilemmas.
While watching the film, I started imagining a version of the nativity story from Mary’s perspective, perhaps as an older woman telling her story to Luke (whose Gospel suggests that she was one of his primary sources). That way at least voiceovers would make sense . . . But most of all, I wish The Nativity Story would have captured the amazing qualities of Mary that are revealed in her Magnificat (which wasn’t originally in the movie’s script at all, and was only added as a voiceover as the Holy Family escapes to Egypt—and, as already mentioned, it’s almost drowned by “Silent Night”). (For a good analysis of these Marian qualities, check out the recent Scot McKnight article “The Mary We Never Knew.”)
As far as minor characters, the magi are included for what seems to be intended as comic relief, but really is incredibly dull. Ciarán Hinds’s Herod is suitably sneering (yay, Ciarán Hinds! I think he’s one of the most underrated actors working today, though this film doesn’t really allow him to show his skill). Gilda the Donkey puts in a fine, fuzzy-eared appearance as the Holy Family’s beast of burden (and the kind way Joseph treats her is one of the reasons we like him so much).
All in all, the movie does do a good job of capturing the people’s political expectations for a Messiah, and the need for someone to deliver them from the Roman oppression. But we don’t really get a sense of how Christ’s birth is even more revolutionary and strange than they–or we–could have dreamed.
3 comments December 3rd, 2006