Today marks the tenth anniversary of the theatrical release of The Nativity Story — the first attempt by a big-ish Hollywood studio to replicate the box-office success that Mel Gibson had found two years earlier with The Passion of the Christ.
As we now know, things didn’t quite turn out the way the studio hoped, but the film had its merits, and a few of the people involved went on to bigger and better things — notably director Catherine Hardwicke, who went on to direct the first film in the Twilight franchise (one of the top-grossing films ever made by a female director), and co-star Oscar Isaac, who went on to win critical and fanboy praise for films as diverse as Ex Machina, Inside Llewyn Davis and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
I wrote several articles about the film and its place within the Bible-movie genre when it first came out, and I’ve mentioned it in a few blog posts since then too. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the things I have written about this film:
My interview with Hardwicke, Isaac and Shohreh Aghdashloo (November 23, 2006):
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.”
My article on ethnically appropriate casting in Jesus films (November 24, 2006):
In 1961, Metro–Goldwyn–Mayer produced King of Kings, the first major Hollywood film about the life of Christ since the silent era. The virgin Mary was played by Siobhan McKenna, a respected Irish actress in her late 30s, and the villainous Herod the Great was described by the narrator as “an Arab of the Bedouin tribe.”
Nearly half a century later, things have flipped around. The Nativity Story, produced by New Line Cinema (the same studio that made The Lord of the Rings), casts an Irishman as King Herod; and several of the supporting actors were born in primarily Muslim territories, such as Iran and Sudan, or can trace their family roots there.
Mary in the new film is played by Keisha Castle-Hughes, a 16-year-old New Zealander who was nominated for an Oscar for her role in Whale Rider. Although Castle-Hughes is part Maori, this is at least the second time she has played a Middle Easterner; two years ago, she played an Arab-American in a music video by Prince.
Gone are the days when blue-eyed, blonde-haired actors and actresses could pass themselves off as the Jewish Messiah or his immediate friends and family. Audiences expect more “authenticity” these days, and filmmakers eager to promote their films as something new and different are more than willing to provide it.
My interview with screenwriter Mike Rich and producers Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey (November 30, 2006):
My article on how Mary has been depicted in the movies (November 30, 2006):
As universal as the film may be, it still contains a number of messages that can only be described as deeply and particularly Christian. For example, one of the Magi declares, upon seeing the Christ child, that the baby in Mary’s arms is “God made into flesh.” Did [screenwriter Mike] Rich have to fight to keep that line in? Was he concerned at all that the studio or the filmmakers might try to tone that sort of thing down?
“It was on the bubble, from start to finish, it really was,” says Rich. “But I’m glad we got it in there. It was a line that follows up [an earlier line, in which Jesus is called] ‘the greatest of kings born in the most humble of places’ — and there’s nothing to validate or confirm that that statement was made at that particular moment, but it’s the overriding backbone to Christian faith, so I wanted to get it in there.”
Fortunately, because it is rooted so firmly in the Bible, the birth of Jesus provides an excellent place for Christians of all stripes to explore the character of Mary. And as far as the movies are concerned, The Nativity Story just may be the boldest attempt yet to flesh out the one from whom God the Son himself took flesh.
My review of the film (December 1, 2006):
Here is where the tension between the film’s ancient and modern sensibilities is at its most obvious. Director Catherine Hardwicke spent years as a production designer before she got behind the camera, and her quest for authenticity is all over The Nativity Story’s set design, especially when she throws in brief educational cutaway shots of peasants treading grapes or milking goats. But the film also gives Mary and her parents a taste of the intergenerational friction that was a major theme in Hardwicke’s previous directorial efforts, Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown — and at times, the interactions within Mary’s family feel a tad anachronistic.
The audio commentary I recorded with my priest (March 27, 2007):
I almost always enjoy conversational audio commentaries more than commentaries where a person talks all by himself, and I think this commentary is a lot better than it would have been if it had been just me yakking. That said, it was a challenge to hold on to some trains of thought, as Fr. Justin and I picked up on different aspects of the movie simultaneously, and especially as we tried to keep up with the movie; there are quite a few points where Fr. Justin and I comment on a scene that has already passed, because during the scene we were busy talking about something else!
My post on films that have depicted Jesus in the nude (April 23, 2013):
In this film, the baby is shown in all its messy nakedness for more or less the same reason the filmmakers made a point of casting actors of a certain ethnicity or showing the details of everyday life in a first-century village; it’s all part of a general effort to be “realistic”. But the “realism” of this scene only goes so far. While this film, like a few others, does show Mary experiencing labour pains, it does not show Joseph or anyone else cutting an umbilical cord; the baby seems to have come out of the womb untethered. Even more interestingly, there is a point during the delivery of Jesus when the film suddenly fades to white. Details like these, intentionally or not, seem to hark back to a tradition that is at least as old as the 2nd-century Infancy Gospel of James, which holds that “a great light appeared in the cave so that their eyes could not bear it. And a little while later the same light withdrew until an infant appeared.”
My post on the politics of the Magnificat in film (December 25, 2014):
The only film I can find that keeps the more political bits of the Magnificat — not counting the Genesis Project, which was obliged to keep those bits by virtue of being a complete word-for-word adaptation of the text — is, perhaps surprisingly, The Nativity Story (2006), which was criticized when it first came out for being too mild for a Bible film released only two years after The Passion of the Christ.
Significantly, this film omits the Magnificat from the scene in which Mary first meets Elizabeth, but it makes up for this by giving the Magnificat the last word, by placing it at the end of the movie and allowing it to sum up what the story was about. . . .
Putting the Magnificat at the end of the film also allows the filmmakers to develop a character arc for Mary. She has doubts at first — doubts about her betrothal to Joseph, doubts about her destiny as the mother of the Messiah — but those doubts are resolved by the end of the film. In addition to summing up the movie’s themes, the Magnificat reflects the confidence that Mary has found in her calling.