Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Nativity Story

Finally, we have a fairly balanced orthodox Bible film. While some people may think Mel Gibson's "Passion" was faithful to scripture, the material for the film was taken from a German nun's private revelation.

I never planned to see "Nativity", thinking it was one of those hagiographic dishes Hollywood cooks up from time to time. But I saw the traffic yesterday afternoon and I decided to cool off at a mall cinema. I wasn't disappointed. The movie is a new treatment of a traditional theme.

OK. The movie producers did not offend traditional Christian (read Catholic and Protestant) sensibilities. The producers did not have to cook up gimmicks like having a scene where Joseph and Mary fulfill their marital duties (offensive to Catholics) or the Holy Couple kissing (offensive to Protestants and Catholics).

Instead we see a young couple who are in love. Catholics are reared on an image of the Holy Family, but when I was a kid, I never thought Mary and Joseph were in love! It seemed to me then that they had to get married to raise the Holy Kid! Also the scene depicting the Annunciation was tastefully done. First it happened in an open field and Mary was not depicted as a subordinate to the Angel. In fact it appeared that she was an equal to the Angel and she gave her consent to be Christ's mother quite freely. And this Mary is not meek. She has a strong personality and quite hard headed but obedient. This Joseph is no wimp. His expression when he found out that his fiancee was pregnant is really so human. If I found out my fiancee was pregnant after a long trip, I would have the same expression!

Joseph and Mary transcended social and cultural pressures and committed themselves to their fate.

The Angel Gabriel was depicted as a man (played by Alexander Siddig, an actor who got his break in "Kingdom of Heaven") and not as a glowing blob. He also is depicted in an Egyptian fashion as a falcon. In Egyptian mythology, the falcon is also a messenger.

Also the political context of Christ's birth was magnificently done. The director Catherine Hardwicke is to be congratulated for bringing that period in history to life. Now I understand why it was remarkable for the grown up Christ to invite a tax collector for dinner!

But what I found very interesting is how the movie depicts the three Wise Men. The men are not depicted as kings, not even as plain astrologers but as astronomers. They were depicted as scientists. And like all scientists, they contest the data and observations. In the end they agree and swap jokes and sarcasm.

In other movie depictions the Wise Men are always shown as somewhat otherworldly. But they do not understand the meaning of who they were seeking until they see the child, such as in "Jesus of Nazareth" In the "Nativity" they reach the stable after the shepherds adored the babe and already had an idea of what to expect and what they foresee would happen to the Child. The Bible says nothing about this but this does not harm the narrative. In fact this must be a concession for what Catholics view the Nativity is all about. The scene was a literal representation of the creche. The allusion to the Passion is made clear when the Wise Men offered their presents.

The movie ends with Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt with the Child. This is really where the infancy narrative ends. All in all the movie is a balanced rendition of an old theme. The director is to be congratulated for dispensing with the hagiography while remaining faithful to orthodox Christian teaching.

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