Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Nativity Story

"The Nativity Story"

By Paul Dion, STL

I was invited to the "sneak preview" of the new film, "the Nativity Story." This film is scheduled for general release on December 1, 2006. It is the only major Hollywood film that has ever been premiered in Vatican City before the pope. I had missed at least two other invitations, so I decided to not renege on this one.

I decided to go despite the fact that I make it a point not to attend films that follow a book that I have already read. I also make it a point not to waste my time going to films that that are made from Bible stories. Even though these two statements may seem to be logically connected, and they are, I have to say that there are different reasons why I refrain from going to Bible story films than those that keep me away from films that come from books that I have read.

For example, I read Puzo's book, "The Godfather". I knew what I knew about the book and about what Puzo wanted to say. I did not need my thoughts to be embellished by the director of the film. I read "The Last Temptation of Christ" by Nikos Kazantzakis. I assure you that I had absolutely no temptation to see Martin Scorsese's interpretation of that book. Nikos is a Greek lover of Jesus and Martin is an Italian lover. HHHmmmm, maybe I should go see that one. I will not go see the "Da Vinci Code." I read the book. I have my opinion of what Dan Brown's intellectual, artistic, linguistic and religious abilities are. No thank you.

I have some similar reasons for not going to bible story films. But the bottom line here is that a film is too flat. It only has two directions, what you see and what you hear, NOW. It doesn't reach into Moses' back pocket to see what the Biblical Author wants you to know about the Messiah. It doesn't see behind Mary's eyes to tell you what she may or may not know about how the Messiah was to come. It doesn't illuminate the spiritual convictions that Zachariah had about the miracle of Elizabeth giving birth to a son in her advanced age. I know that he could have been thinking about Sarah, Hannah and a couple others, but the Bible story film doesn't clarify these things. Bible story films are altogether too fundamentalist for me. Not because of the convictions of the director, but because of the medium itself.

So go ahead, ask yourself, why did I go to see "The Nativity Story?"

Three easy answers: My wife wanted to go. It was free. I wanted to tell you all about it.

I'm going to make this simple. I am not a film critic. I had a fine amateur career on the boards, but not in front of a beady-eyed camera. So be brave, forge ahead and see what I have in store for you.

What I liked:
It was short. Ninety minutes.
It was true to life in showing how children learned the tenets of their religion as they grew up in a Jewish community.
St. Joseph was a nice, ripe young gentleman.
The actors and actresses were really realistic images of small village, peasant folk.
The non-biblical conjectures were realistically portrayed. The actions of the Roman Soldiers; the reaction of the villagers to the pregnancy of Mary; the reaction of Joseph to the same phenomenon were all rather close to what you could expect from small village folk.
The desire of Mary to go to Elizabeth, her aunt is well portrayed.
The predominant language is English.
The Roman Soldiers speak English to the villagers and sometimes the background chatter is in Aramaic. This shows a distance between the Roman occupying soldiers and the natives.
What is in the Bible is in the movie. What is conjecture is artistically attractive and close to what you could normally expect.
The humor was well timed and high class.
The photography of the desert is the same as it always is in Mideast settings, it is always awesome.

What I didn't like:
The Magi looked like they were imported from a "b" movie. Very contrived. It just proved that what is parable doesn't translate into multi-dimensional communication and belief.
Ditto for the gathering of the shepherds at the manger.
Ditto for the plastic pose of Joseph and Mary in the manger at the simultaneous gathering of shepherds and Magi.
The intervention(s) of the angel Gabriel are not as good as they could have been portrayed given today's technology. I would have preferred some sequence with "Star Trek" beam transporter, light shower effect over what the director presented in this movie.
The portrayal of the birth of Jesus with the help of Joseph was tasteful but not according to Catholic Tradition. Catholic tradition holds that Mary conceived through the action of the Holy Spirit and that she remained a virgin even after the earthly appearance of Jesus through divine intervention. There is a theological discussion about this in certain circles and the screenwriter asserts in the glossy propaganda that was handed out, "We got the script into the hands of as many historians and theologians as possible. They have all helped elevate the authentic feel of this film. Not only visually, but from a standpoint of culture and tradition." (Mike Rich) I think that if this film was meant to be more Catholic than not, they missed the boat on this one.
The lack of connection between Jesus and the covenants between God and the Patriarchs. All we see is the preoccupation of Herod with Jeremiah's prophecy that there will be a new king.
The writer missed a golden opportunity to remind everyone of the peregrinations of Abraham, the father of our faith and Mary, and Joseph and the newborn child.
Maybe I'm getting old and deaf, but the conversational sound was difficult to appreciate because it was too low.
The credits show the name of the donkey, "Gilda" but they omit the name of the child who was used to portray the newborn Jesus. Maybe "Gilda" paid her union dues and the baby, or his(her?) parents are scabs.

If you're like me and you don't attend movies that are based on a book that you've already read, I don't think that you're going to get your money's worth from this one. If you have spent a serious amount of time meditating on the mystery of Salvation History in the pages of Sacred Scripture, you don't have to see this film. If you have spent a lot of time meditating the mystery of the Incarnation as it is to be found in the Bible, you don't have to see this film.

If you have children and you want to have a quiet night out together, you'll get something out of this presentation. It can serve as a good Catechism lesson.

If you have spent your money to go see "The Da Vinci Code" then you have to go to "The Nativity Story" as your penance to prepare for a Holy Christmas Season.

There are those of you who will go because you think I'm too grouchy, strict and pessimistic and you want to compare your judgment against mine. OK, go. But if I'm right, you get to drop the cost of your ticket in the Christmas collection basket (Double jeopardy). If I'm wrong, celebrate your happiness by contributing a nice fresh poinsettia to your church for altar decoration.

Either way, you'll be thinking of me, and I can use all the prayerful thoughts I can get, both from those who are celebrating and those who are repenting.

Now, how can you cry at the funeral of a guy with an attitude like that?
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