Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Nativity Story—Digital Poetry 2006?

I skipped Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” for many reasons, so why would I buy a ticket and sit through Catherine Hardwicke’s “The Nativity Story”? In part because the promotional hype was less pushy and MO, my spouse, told me she had seen some good interviews with actors and others involved in the production.

Rather than say that I liked or disliked it, I’ll describe the film from my perspective and invite you to do what you will with it: compare notes if you go, or use this blog as a reason not to go. “The Nativity” is a montage with an overlay of Advent/Christmas sacred music subtly used in a way that reminded me as a viewer that this is a story told through the memory and imagination of the church over two millennia. True to this tradition of conflating the synoptic gospel narratives, the film “tells” the story with restrained imagination. Luke’s canticles (Zachary’s Song and the Song of Mary) are incorporated as speaking parts, but in ways that “sing”—especially the Magnificat at the conclusion as the holy family flees to Egypt over the “Moroccan” sand dunes (part of the movie was filmed in the magnificent but formidable sand dunes of Morocco). Keisha Castle-Hughes' voicing of the text used almost universally in Evening Prayer rekindled my sense of the robustness and emotional dimensions of this song.

In a world where people are more accustomed to cinematic story telling and “hearing” biblical narrative digitally mediated, this film is a moving achievement. Biblical scholars and knowledgeable Christians can and will criticize the abuses of the story (conflation and compression of the Matthean and Lukan events: for example, Matthew’s magi arrive at the Bethlehem cave on the heals of the Lukan shepherds, and Herod’s orders the murder of all Bethlehem’s boys “under two years old” within hours of the birth of Jesus. Nevertheless, the film is artfully done and the poetry of the story comes through as a credit to “Hollywood.” In part, this is due to the director’s insistence on "stony" vistas and villages. One of my memories of several trips to Israel is the stony character of the land; no wonder the penalty for so many infractions of the holiness laws was stoning the offender to death!

There were some well placed and modestly nuanced additions to the story by Mike Rich (screenplay): the meeting of very pregnant and cold Mary with a shepherd who invited her to share the warmth of his fire (you know you'll see him again), the banter and teasing of the magi, and the real danger to Mary if Joseph had gone off on her for being pregnant by God knows who.

Am I glad I saw the film? Yes. I might even watch it again next Christmas, though I rarely watch a movie twice.

No comments: