LOS ANGELES, CA — It has been nearly three years since The Passion of the Christ proved there was an audience for biblical movies with a strong Christian theme. Now, Hollywood is finally beginning to catch up — and what better way to follow a film about the death of Jesus than to make a film about his birth?
The Nativity Story, which comes to theatres December 1, is directed by Catherine Hardwicke, a former production designer who made her directorial debut three years ago on Thirteen, an Oscar-nominated, R-rated film about the troubled relationship between a teenaged girl and her single mother. Hardwicke followed this with Lords of Dogtown, a dynamic look at several legendary skateboarders in the 1970s.
Sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll were all prominent features of Hardwicke’s first two films, so it might seem like a stretch that she would then go on to tackle a rather pious account of the virginal conception of Christ. But the film does star 16-year-old New Zealander Keisha Castle-Hughes, who became the youngest best-actress Oscar nominee in history two years ago for her performance in Whale Rider; and Hardwicke says the new film actually fits quite nicely with her previous youth-oriented movies.
“This movie is about the most famous teenager in history,” says Hardwicke to a handful of journalists at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills. The Virgin Mary, she says, “had maybe the biggest obstacles that she had to face and the most extraordinary challenges. So in a way you could say it’s part of my teen trilogy.”
Hardwicke says she was intrigued by the opportunity the film gave her to get behind the familiar icons, and to portray Mary and Joseph — here depicted as a man in his mid-20s — as ordinary people, albeit people who lived within a very different culture from ours. For example, Mary’s betrothal to Joseph is imposed on her by her parents; and Mary, who feels no love for Joseph, doesn’t know how to respond. And then the townsfolk are scandalized when they learn that Mary is pregnant.
“Two thousand years ago, how similar is that to teenage life now?” asks Hardwicke. “I mean, there are still struggles with the parents, but of course Mary had this extraordinary situation, being told that she would bear the Son of God, and then having people looking down on her, not believing her, [and treating her like an] outcast. How did she find faith in herself and inner strength to overcome this?
“So I felt there was some kind of continuity, and I tried to do similar things, to really take you back to Nazareth, and to take you back into real-life, real-person, real situations that you could relate to. If you’re a guy, how would you feel if your fiancee that you love so dearly comes back home and she’s pregnant, and you know you’re not the father, and she says it’s going to be the Son of God? I mean,” she adds with a laugh, “that’s a tough one for any man to get his head around, y’know?”
Whereas Mel Gibson’s movie was very masculine, Hardwicke’s is more feminine; The Passion of the Christ is full of scenes in which men beat up other men, but The Nativity Story takes time out to show Mary and her kinswoman Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, feeling the movements of the babies in each other’s wombs. “That’s kind of girly, huh?” Hardwicke laughs. “That’s kind of the chick flick part of it.”
She says she wanted to be as true to the material as she could, and not get too distracted by modern debates over the place of women in religion — but if this part of the gospel story happens to cast women in a positive light, then so much the better. “Of course, Mary has inspired women all over the world for two thousand or more years,” says Hardwicke, “so I think that, yes, I wanted to portray them with strength and dignity and beauty and continue inspiring people by these women.”Shohreh Aghdashloo, the Iranian actress who plays Elizabeth, says she modelled her own performance after a woman in her own life that she had found very inspiring — namely her grandmother — but she says she did this unconsciously, at first.
“When I was doing this research [into the character of Elizabeth], I also kept writing, creating stories about her background,” she says. “I assume that she’s coming from a very good tribe and she loves Zechariah and they had been married, and I usually write and try to come up with adjectives, to try to portray my character.”
Aghdashloo, who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Ben Kingsley’s wife in House of Sand and Fog, says she found herself writing words like “selfless,” “giving,” “kind,” “generous” and “with a heart full of love for humanity,” and “all of a sudden it dawned on me. ‘Wait a minute, my grandmother was like this.'”
Aghdashloo, who was raised Muslim, calls herself “a student of all religions” and says she was influenced in this by her grandmother, who studied the Torah and kept a copy of the Bible in Farsi. So she tried to honour both her grandmother and the biblical Elizabeth by “combining” the two women in her performance.
The film’s biggest discovery is Oscar Isaac, the Guatemala-born, Miami-raised actor who plays Joseph. He says the screenplay — by Mike Rich (The Rookie), a practising Christian himself — was so “reverential” that the key to his performance was to make Joseph as human as possible, “to make him flesh and blood.”
Isaac notes that Joseph is drawn to Mary because of her virtue and out of a love that goes deeper than what we see in most films. He also notes that Joseph continues to wrestle with his emotions — including his initial feeling of betrayal when he learns that Mary is pregnant — long after he has made the decision to do God’s will.
“It was very difficult for me to stay in the room, you know,” he says. “In rehearsal, I would go out and have to kick things, and I had to basically find out why does he stay. And again, the idea of love — you can say that’s a love that comes from God. That’s that Corinthians love, that seeks not itself in return; it’s meek, it’s humble. As a young man, what I had to connect with, was that feeling of love for someone.”
Isaac insists there is nothing “irreverential” about his portrayal of Joseph’s spiritual struggle; if anything, he says it makes the character’s strengths stand out all the more. “I think that just shows his power more, that he was able to feel everything that we feel, but overcome it — and I don’t think I could!”
Isaac says he grew up in a charismatic, non-denominational Christian home and has since “kind of gone through my own journey, much as Joseph has, figuring out if you’re hearing God correctly.” But he says his family is rooting for him and this film.
“My dad said that if he went to church and saw my picture with candles around it, he wouldn’t be too happy,” says Isaac with a laugh. “It would freak him out a little bit. No, he’s so excited. They think it has meaning, that this is my first film.”