Near the end of The Nativity Story, the manger scene is as still and precisely framed as the crèches children play with under Christmas trees. The crib is illuminated from above by a beam of starlight so tight and focused it should be coming from a nearby klieg light, rather than the North Star. The villain Herod has shown himself to be perhaps the dumbest man alive, wondering where the Messiah is while from a hundred miles away Mary’s parents gaze knowingly on the ultra highbeam light that practically screams out “Jesus the Christ, this way” like roving spotlights advertising an ancient camel dealership. Mary and Joseph have just completed their very own quiet birthing, Scientology-style, “Silent Night” is swelling on the soundtrack, and the three kings have emerged from the desert, as though having escaped from the cutting room floor of a bad Indiana Jones prequel, full of wide-eyed reactions and Arabic stereotyping. While at its start the film purported to be realistic, setting the tale of the birth of Christ in a situation of social conflict and teenage angst (Mary here looks about 14 years old), by tale’s end everything has largely dissolved into a puddle of hushed sighs and “peace.”
The Nativity Story, directed by Catherine Hardwicke (director of Thirteen), written by Mike Rich (writer of Finding Forrester) and starring Keisha Castle-Hughes (an Academy Award nominee for her role in Whale Rider) has a great pedigree; and in Joseph (Oscar Isaac), it has a great character, one who shows humor, feeling and humanity. But The Nativity Story is not a great film.
In fact, I would argue that the film’s intention of “retelling” the “real” nativity is not a great idea in the first place. Not because we shouldn’t try to tell the story of Christ’s birth, life or death; indeed, I’d say that task is essential. But in the hands of today’s producers, “retelling” has become a literalistic, even word-for-word re-presentation of scripture that reduces its characters to the flat, two-dimensional level of a children’s story. Nativity and films like it forget that their characters are first and fundamentally human beings, not ‘scriptural figures.’
I can’t help but think The Nativity Story is intended to bookend Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Much like that earlier film, the characters of the The Nativity Story hit their marks and parrot the words of scripture but lack…well, character (with the welcome exception of Joseph, who has no lines from scripture to deliver). As played by the fine actress Shoreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog), Elizabeth stands out as particularly awkward, listening to she and Mary attempt to talk in biblical verse is simply painful and wrong-headed.
to project our own understandings of the Holy Family, Herod and the kings upon them. It is the cinematic equivalent of Hello Kitty, the Japanese doll made without a mouth because, as a friend once explained to me, ‘It feels what you feel.'”
That’s not to say you couldn’t watch The Nativity Story and be legitimately moved. Although the story is painted with dramatic strokes so broad and obvious the land of Narnia could safely hide within them, at its best moments Nativity offers powerful, iconic scenes for personal meditation—Joseph wondering how they will raise the child; Mary washing Joseph’s feet; the kings before the crib. At its worst, however, (which is frankly much of the time) The Nativity Story presents superficial characters whose blandness allows us to project our own understandings of the Holy Family, Herod and the kings upon them. It is the cinematic equivalent of Hello Kitty, the Japanese doll made without a mouth because, as a friend once explained to me, “It feels what you feel.”
Girl Gone Mild
And while we might be satisfied with this, we should demand so much more—not because we’re aesthetic snobs or claiming some kind of profound sophistication, but because as Christians we believe that the story of our salvation happened not to godlike figures, but to human beings like us; we believe that Mary, for instance, was not just the archetypal figure we call “the Mother of our Lord” (capital M, capital L) but a person with depth and struggles and a sense of humor and maybe crooked teeth and a weird sort of laugh—one of us. While (yet another) oh-so-meek and mild presentation of her may enable us to feel something spiritual, it also keeps the woman that was Mary hidden away.
And ultimately that’s a problem. The iconic Mary can encourage us, but alone she’s just as likely to be manipulated by us or by others. Consider, how many homilies and decrees you have heard that come down to “Look at how obedient Mary was; now you— believers, women…fill in the blank—do the same,” sort of the “Shut up and eat your dinner” style of discipleship.
Likewise, how easily the image of Mary as passive and interior can become a way of allowing ourselves off the hook, of thinking that being Christian has to do with me and God and very little to do with the world, the needs of the poor and hungry. Or of believing that the challenging invitation issued to Mary and Joseph to give themselves completely into God’s hands was a one-shot deal, something that God asks only of them and/or that only they could have done, when in fact the point of the story is not simply that God entered into the world, but that his kingdom continues to enter in through us. Yes, God spoke to Mary and Joseph, and he’s also speaking to us.
Mary, daughter of Anne and Joachim, was a young girl, basically. Perhaps sometimes she talked back; maybe she was afraid of the dark, or liked to tell jokes or talked in her sleep. As she entered into young womanhood, she had this completely random and scary encounter with God and got pregnant before she was married and had her life thrown completely upside down. She and Joseph’s life is a great story, filled with twists and drama, humor and sorrow, wonder and idiosyncratic humanity and struggle. I hope someday soon someone will undertake a modern version of it; so far, it has yet to be told.