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."