Monday, December 04, 2006

The Nativity-- The Birth of a Classic?

You know how it is when you really love a story. You want the adaptation on the screen to be right. I was holding my breath when I heard they were making the Lord of the Rings a few years ago and I was really holding my breath when I learned they were filming the nativity. This could be bad in so many ways-- think home movies of the birth of somebody else's first child. But in fact 'The Nativity' is not only not bad-- its actually pretty good.

I had some early clues, since my friend and fellow NT scholar Darrell Bock was consulted for this movie. I figured they would try hard to give it an authentic flavor. Well they did, and mostly to good effect. To be sure this movie is a bit melodramatic when it comes to the good vs. evil thing (Herod is of course the diabolical Lex Luthor of this movie), but if you look at a movie as a work of art rather than a documentary, then some poetic license has to be allowed. Think of the recurring Herod theme which frames the movie and intervenes from time to time as the dark backdrop to the light at the heart of the story which of course involves Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Think of this movie as like a Rembrandt painting where the extreme darkness around the edges highlights the light in the center of the frame.

The movie in the first place has only one actor or actress with a reasonably familiar name. Ms. Keisha Castle-Hughes who plays Mary has shown up before in a fine movie from down under (Whale-Rider). I was particularly pleased with her performance. She plays the young Mary who is both a person of faith and also quite naturally afraid of what has happened and is happening to her. But the young man who plays Joseph, Oscar Isaac does a fine job as well. It is good to see a good ensemble cast. In such a serious movie there is perhaps of course a bit of a need for some comic relief, and occasionally the wise men do their bit to produce some wry smiles in the audience. The gentleman who plays Herod is menacing and malevolent enough, but in fact the real Herod was himself a paranoid man who executed various of his own wives and offspring, so the portrayal here is believable, to the contrary of the recent scholarly attempts to rehaibilitate the man. He was a bad man, and there's no use in trying to say otherwise.

The movie is basically filmed in Italy and in Morocco (where Jesus of Nazareth was also filmed I believe-- or was it Tunisia?). There appear to have been a few scenes filmed at Nazareth village in Nazareth, a wonderful recreation village there, or at least there are scenes modeled on that village. In any case they got the scenes of daily life right. We see them grinding grain, stomping grapes, milking goats, making goat cheese, making olive paste and the like.

We have an issue as to what exactly was Joseph's trade. A teknis is a craftsman-- could be a stone mason, could be a carpenter. But wood was very scarce in ancient Israel, and so perhaps he did some of both. Homes were built of stone, and so were mangers-- which is a little gaff towards the end of the movie where we have a wooden manger. I was impressed with the scenes in the homes-- average families did indeed sleep together in one room (see Jesus' parable about the friend at midnight). I was also impressed with the Hebrew of Joseph-- he got the Kiddush prayer right, it even sounded right. It is clear that the director, Catherine Hardwicke cared about the details.

In regard to the CG (mainly of Jerusalem) this was something of a disappointment, as at points it did not look real, nor did the final scene of the pyramids look real either. But most of the effects including the light shining in the manger did not look hokey. The visual look of the film is about right. We get a sense of the arid regions around Galilee, and the rocky hill country of Judea, as well as the desert regions the Magi could have crossed if they came all the way from Persia. This brings me to the star-- or shall we say stars. This movie suggests the wise men followed a rare conjunction of three planets-- the conjunction climaxing when they reach Bethlehem. It is a possible theory, but of course Matthew says the star led them right to the manger. No stars or conjunctions of stars do that naturally. We may be meant to think it was an angel who led them to the locale, since the ancients believed the stars were beings, the heavenly host.

How then was Hardwicke to mesh the Matthean and Lukan very different story lines? Here she does a nice job of toggling back and forth, except at the point where we get both shepherds and wise men at the manger simultaneously in a nice little Christmas card tableau. This is not accurate. Mt. 2.1-2 tells us that "after Jesus was born in Bethlehem the Magi came to Herod in Jerusalem". We do not know how long after. And one more thing, Matthew says they were in a house when the Magi came to town, not in a cave (as is depicted in this movie). Now granted there were some houses built out front of some caves in Bethelehem, but 'oikos' means house which probably implies more than a cave. We could quibble as well about one of the wise men suddenly being as wise as the author of John 1-- he says "god has become flesh" when he sees Jesus.
This is a bit over the top.

One of the more interesting dimensions of this telling of the story is how once Mary hears from the angel that she is about to be pregnant, she goes to visit Elizabeth, and no one knows she is pregnant but Mary herself until she comes back several months later. Then we have the distraught parents, the non-plussed Joseph who has to be convinced by a dream to marry Mary and the rest. There are no major gaffs or omissions in the story line, only small missing bits like we do not have Mary's famous line 'I am the handmaiden of the Lord'. Joseph is portrayed as a good and gracious man who keeps trying to win Mary's heart, even though at first she is not happy about being betrothed by means of an arranged marriage to someone she hardly knows.

The soundtrack is interesting. It combines little snippets of Christmas carol phrases and vocals without words, with music much like what we heard in the Gospel of John film-- lutes and the like. It provides a nice undercurrent without becoming cheesy. Visually the film is fine and crisp, and it makes very clear the ordinariness and difficulties of life in that age in that world.

So what shall we say? It is a very difficult thing to tell the most familiar story in the world so well that most of those who know it are satisfied with the telling. But I for one was pleased, despite minor quibbles. Catherine Hardwicke obviously cared about getting the story right, and doing it in a way that did not offend the pious. Good for her. Where there was room for helpful embellishment or amplification, she used it, but it did not distort the pith of the story. Well done. We need more faithful movies like this one. The truth is, in a visually oriented generation of learners this may be the only Jesus, Mary and Joseph some people ever see. As such, at least it is a true to life portrait of 'How it All Began'. John Donne put it this way--- "'Twas much that man was made like God long before/ but that God should be made like man, much more."


C.P.O. said...

I appreciate your thoughts on the movie. After reading about some poor reviews, I wasn't going to see it. But now it sounds like it is worth giving it a shot, especially at this time of year.

Ben Witherington said...

Films like this prove to be a litmus test, which often bring to the surface a film critic's view not of the film, but of the Biblical story itself. This is the case with the film the 'Nativity'. It is not a bad or shlocky film. It tries to be faithful to the story while still being creative. I have noticed however that while the film got about a 14% rating at rottentomatoes initially, now we are up to 40% or so as more have seen the film.

My advice is-- if you are a Christian especially you should go see and support this film. Otherwise you have no leverage for criticizing Hollywood for not making faith friendly films.


Ben W.

Josh Linton said...

Dr. Witherington,

Love your blog. I work with youth and have thought a lot about utilizing movies to reach some of the young people who come and know little of the biblical story. Could you recommend some of the ones that you believe would work well?

Thank you.

C.S. Feld said...

Thank you for this post, I certainly look forward to watching this film. Could you recommend any good commentary on the "infancy gospels" other than the one by Raymond Brown? (I'm in the process of reading it).

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Friends:

In regard to the infancy narratives I would suggest you read the various relevant articles in the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels.

In regard to movies worth uses, including with youth, here is a short list: 1) Zeferelli's Jesus of Nazareth; 2) Peter and Paul; 3) St. John in Exile; 4) A.D.; 5) Jesus (not the retelling of the Gospel of Luke used worldwide, but the more recent CBS film for TV-- its spotty in places but has some spectacular scenes, like Jesus' encounter with the Devil; 6) The Gospel of John; 7) I cannot recommend the Passion of the Christ as it is too unbiblical in about 30% of the movie-- it does have some powerful scenes worth using. There are others worth mentioning but this will do for starters.



José Solano said...

Thank you Dr. Witherington for this review.

Would you say that the film is suitable for a nine and seven year old? I cannot trust movie ratings these days. I'm concerned about gratuitous violence leaving nothing to the imagination. Is there, for instance, a gory slaughter of the innocents? This was my greatest objection to the Passion of Christ. People shouldn't take children to see a detailed and lengthy scourging or crucifixion, even if it is of Jesus. I had to close my eyes through much of that torture. I am not particularly bothered by the creative liberties that are taken as I expect this in movies.

In spite of its biblical inconsistencies, my all time favorite Jesus movie is Cecil B. DeMille's silent film, King of Kings.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Jose: I think you will find that it is fine for your kids. There is one brief scene at the beginning of the movie about the innocnents, but it is tame and not dwelled on. This movie does not in any way play up violence.



SJBedard said...

I am curious as to which parts of the Passion of the Christ were unbiblical. There certainly were some artistic liberties. But there were with the CBC Jesus miniseries (which I also very much enjoyed). I doubt Satan wears an Italian suit and frequently time travels.

Ben Witherington said...

About 35% of the movie was based on the book The Dolorous Passion of the Christ by Anna Katherine Emmerich-- a famously anti-Semitic nun. None of thye so-called artistic liberties were that in Mel's movie. Worst of all was the scene with the Jewish children taunting Judas into hanging himself, and turning into demons! Almost as bad was the unBiblical flaggelation scene which went on and on, and then Mrs. Pilate came out and helped sop up the blood. There are so many distortions and misrepresentations in this movie I wouldn't recommend most of it to anyone. Its historically and theological full of problems.

Ben W.

Exiled in mainstream said...


given it was Gibson historical inaccuracy is hardly surprising. We were just surprised that the crucifixion wasn't carried out by the English!

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for your review, Ben. I think you get it about right (cf. my thoughts at

On Jesus of Nazareth, yes, it was filmed partly in Ouarzazate in Morocco, which was used for The Nativity Story, but also in Monastir and Sousse in Tunisia. Life of Brian used the same Tunisian locations and even some of the same extras, only a year or so after filming on Jesus of Nazareth was finished. Ouarzazate was also used for the 1999 Jesus film starring Sisto as Jesus, which you mention above.

Matt said...

I think it is vitally important to support efforts like this one. We can toss our money on things that promote anti-Christian values or we can put our money where our beliefs are and let people know that there can be popular movies that are wholesome and center on God/Jesus. Unfortunately Hollywood never gets it. I guess we should never expect that they will.

Good thoughts. Thank you for the information.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Having seen it the second time today, I think I do concur with Scot McKnight. That the Mary depicted should have been more active in her emotions regarding the injustice of her times. And, related to that, the reality of her carrying the one who would undo that injustice! The Mary there portrayed was too much like the traditional, pious Mary, and not enough like the one who spoke the Magnificat.