Skip to comments.'The Nativity Story' Movie Problematic for Catholics, "Unsuitable" for Young Children
Posted on 12/04/2006 7:52:47 PM PST by Pyro7480
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Fr. Geiger's Review
The Nativity Story Not on Par with The Passion of Christ
By Fr. Angelo Mary Gieger, FI
On November 27th, I attended a prescreening of New Line Cinemas The Nativity Story, after having read and participated in several blog discussions concerning the Virgin Birth. Going into the theater, my expectations were low, due to the amount of confusion expressed by Catholics who were discussing a depiction of Mary in the throes of the pain of childbirth. In all fairness, however, I have to report that I found the movie, in general, to be a pious and reverential presentation of the Christmas mystery, albeit one from a clearly Protestant tradition. But for that reason, not only does the movie get the Virgin Birth wrong, it thoroughly Protestantizes its portrayal of Our Lady.
Today, one must commend any sincere attempt to put Christ back into Christmas, and this film is certainly one of them. Unfortunately, we now often find ourselves defending the Christmas mystery, both from the secularists, and from the demythologizing scripture scholars, who casually explain away the whole infancy narrative, from the apparitions of the angels to the very event of the Incarnation itself. Happily, no such agenda is apparent in this film. Present are all the angelic apparitions, the miraculous star, and the Magi actually called by their given names from Catholic tradition: Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. In fact, in this movie, it is Melchior who drives home the essential truth of Christmas, by quoting the prologue of St. John, calling the newborn Jesus the Word made flesh.
Producer Wyck Godfrey, writer Mike Rich and director Catherine Hardwicke, have created a film that seems to consciously follow in the footsteps of Mel Gibsons The Passion of the Christ. Recognizing the publics desire for Gibson to produce a Christmas story, they took up the torch, so to speak, when Gibson showed no interest in the project. The connection with Gibsons movie can be seen in the similarities of the promotional material, the shoot location in Matera, Italy, and even in the opening shot, tilting from the sky downward and through the clouds. According to one report, a fake olive tree built in Matera for The Passion of the Christ is even used on the set for Nazareth.
However, the contrasts between the movies are even more striking. The Passion is a fundamentally Catholic film, while The Nativity is clearly a Protestant one. While scriptural blanks exist in both cases, Gibson provided the necessary details through the help of Catholic mystics, ultimately yielding a multi-layered, contemplative, and wholly reverential film. In stark contrast, Hardwicke, a Presbyterian, directs a much more ecumenical Nativity, one in which the filmmakers consulted as many historians and theologians as possible, yielding a film that is predictably muddled.
Consensus theology generally renders an ecumenism of the lowest common denominator. As such, this portrayal of the Nativity manifests this tendency where one would expect it to, in regard to the character of Mary.
Mary in The Nativity lacks depth and stature, and becomes the subject of a treatment on teenage psychology. According to Godfrey, Hardwicke was chosen to direct because [s]he has had great success at really capturing the lives of young people in particular, and the conflict, crisis, and pain of growing up. In fact, Hardwicke co-wrote and directed Thirteen, a hard-edged, R-rated story about teen rebellion. Unfortunately, the Mary of The Nativity seems to have been spattered with the same brush that Hardwicke used for the earlier film.
Hardwicke explains her rationale in an interview:
We wanted her [Mary] to feel accessible to a young teenager, so she wouldn't seem so far away from their life that it had no meaning for them. I wanted them to see Mary as a girl, as a teenager at first, not perfectly pious from the very first moment. So you see Mary going through stuff with her parents where they say, "You're going to marry this guy, and these are the rules you have to follow." Her father is telling her that she's not to have sex with Joseph for a yearand Joseph is standing right there. That's very personal and startling, and you can imagine how that would make a person feel.
So much for the Immaculate Conception, the joint predestination of Mary with Christ (Pius IX, Pius XII), Her perfect and effective cooperation in God's plan, and the Perpetual Virginity. Ignoring these doctrinal truths results in a virtual coup against Catholic Mariology. In fairness to Hardwicke, this was hardly her intention. In her mind, this movie is about the most famous teenager in history. The Nativity itself is just the setting for a story about growing up.
This mindset leads to a general observation regarding the difference between the Catholic approach of The Passion of the Christ and the Protestant one of The Nativity Story. It is roughly equivalent to the vast differences seen in the style, scope and substance in the works of the likes of a Mary of Agreda and that of a Max Lucado. Whatever attempt was made by the Catholic mystics to represent the psychology of the Incarnate Son of God or the Immaculate Conception was done from a decidedly doctrinal point of view, characterized by humility and reverence. Whereas, the more Protestant and humanistic approach relies almost entirely upon complete character identification. The reader or viewer must be able to see themselves in the place of the main characters. This usually involves creating scenarios in the experience of these characters similar to our own, irrespective of a received tradition. Perhaps the most universal scenario portrayed both in literature and drama is the human experience of the Fall. Certainly, the Catholic contemplative tradition has always sought identification with Christ, and Our Lady, but this in no way involves a meditation on the Fall. In The Passion of the Christ we find plenty to identify with, but Our Lord and Our Lady are never seen as anything less than heroic. The difference between the Mary of The Passion of the Christ and that of The Nativity Story is the difference between being raised up by the sacred truth we contemplate or being dragged down by the debasement of the mystery through a failed effort to understand it. The Mary of the The Nativity Story is definitely and decidedly fallen.
Thus, it is rather disconcerting to see Our Blessed Mother portrayed with attitude; asserting herself in a rather anachronistic rebellion against an arranged marriage, choosing her words carefully with her parents, and posing meaningful silences toward those who do not understand her. All this, of course, changes with the Annunciation. A pregnancy she cannot explain is the crisis that transforms her. It is understandable that a Protestant mindset toward Our Lady wouldnt resist the temptation to novelize her, for the purpose of character identification, or to capitalize on such an opportunity for dramatic tension.
Likewise, the artists hand hones in on the climax of the story, the birth itself, with mixed results. Hardwicke creates dramatic tension by conjoining the frantic efforts of St. Joseph to find shelter with the supposed labor pains of Mary. The light of the star arrives at the manger cave and shines in through a hole just as St. Joseph, clearly awestruck, delivers the Holy Child. Here, dramatically speaking, Hardwicke succeeds. The reverent intentions of the filmmaker are clear enough, but confusion on the part of Catholics is inevitable.
Following the premier of the film at the Vatican on Sunday, heated discussions about the painlessness of the Virgin Birth immediately erupted. However, many of the comments in the blogosphere miss the point entirely. The essential truth of the Virgin Birth, as taught continually by the Fathers and defined by the Church, does not concern the presence or absence of pain during Jesus birth. The central truth of the Virgin Birth is that Christ was born of Mary miraculously, as a sign and confirmation of His divinity. The Virgin Birth has always been distinguished from the Virginal Conception, because it was a separate and distinct miraculous event. It was not a natural birth, nor is it explainable by natural causes. Our Ladys physical virginity, with all that it implies, remained integral and intact before, during and after the birth of Jesus. St. Bernard, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure and the Catechism of the Council of Trent all teach the painlessness of the birth as a logical consequence of its miraculous nature.
The Virgin Birth is an essential part of the dogma of the Perpetual Virginity, and in addition to its value as a sign of Christs divinity, its miraculous nature just further underscores Our Ladys unique, grace-filled and exalted place in Gods plan. It inspires us to praise Her, admire Her and love Her for Her glorious Virginal Maternity. And while one might expect a Protestant filmmaker to get this wrong, it at least opens up the discussion which can help correct a real doctrinal error believed by many Catholics.
Other aspects of the movie enjoy only mixed success. While individual scenes are visually beautiful, the total effect of The Nativitys filmmaking is one-dimensional and rarely moving. The overall seriousness and reverence with which the subject matter is treated is broken by the rather awkward comic relief provided by the Magi, an unnecessarily disturbing scene of a young Jewish girl being abducted by the Romans, and an overly graphic scene of St. Elizabeth giving birth to John the Baptist. (The slaughter of the innocents, shown in two sequences, is a relatively mild presentation.) While the scenes of the Magi may indeed appeal to children, the presentation of the two births, especially Elizabeths, are just not suitable, in my opionion, for young children to view. The portrayal of St. Joseph is refreshingly masculine and virile. His character is well-developed as a just man, and his honor becomes a central theme of the story. Unfortunately, this is juxtaposed by the aforementioned rather flat and disappointing portrayal of Mary.
It is also worthy to note that there is at least one cinematic and spiritual triumph in The Nativity Story, namely, the Visitation of Mary to St. Elizabeth. Although the Magnificat is relegated to a kind of epilogue at the movies end, the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth is otherwise faithful to the scriptures and quite poignant. In a separate scene, the two women experience the concurrent movement of their children in utero and share deeply in each others joy. I cant think of another piece of celluloid that illustrates the dignity of the unborn child better than this.
The Nativity Story in no way compares to the masterpiece which is The Passion of the Christ, but it is at least sincere, untainted by cynicism, and a worthy effort by Hollywood to end the prejudice against Christianity in the public square. Whether considered in light of its virtues or its flaws, the movie provides an opportunity to catechize people about the true meaning of Christmas, about the real gift that is Jesus, and about His Holy, Ever Virgin Mother, Mary.
The subject matter of The Nativity Story lends itself so well to the promotion of true devotion to Mary. Unfortunately, the way in which it was treated will only confuse the ignorant and confirm them in Marian minimalism. Perhaps there is some hope that the likes of a Gibson will one day match the sublime Marian art of The Passion of the Christ with a Nativity story truly worthy of Our Lady.
"Paron" should be "patron."
Wow. Thanks, bookmarking. I was wondering about this.
I think it's a bit much to ask Hollywood to "get it right" with any Bible account. Take it FWIW, and make your own movie. That's why "The Jesus Movie" was made...
Well, the good priest's review sharply highlights the reasons why the "road back to Rome" is closed to me. Despite all the wonderful and undeniably miraculous things God is doing in the papist side of the Christian family, the goddess thing is just too much for this member of the last generation to say the mass in Latin to swallow.
But then, I imagine you probably feel the same way about five-point Calvinism, so we're even!
I once wrote a scholarly article about the attitude of the church fathers towards sex. Folks, it was far more neoplatonic than Biblical. "Never send Clement a Valentine!" The very word "celibacy" traces back to the rites of self-castration practiced by the devotees of Cybele, the prototypical suffering mother goddess.
Thanks so much for posting this article.
I was waiting for a review of the movie.
Frs. comments on the misreps jives with what I have learned in my Catechism class the last two school years.
I will choose not to watch.
Perhaps EWTN or some such company will someday produce a movie that is spot on to Bible and Catholic Church teachings.
Ping me when it happens. : )
What are you talking about? Do you think the Catholic Church teaches that Mary is a goddess? If so, where does it teach that? And what sense of the term 'goddess' are you using?
The USCCB reviewer doesn't have the same misgivings about the birth but mentions the slaughter of the Holy Innocents making the film unsuitable for very young viewers.
The Nativity Story
By David DiCerto
Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) -- In an effort to reach as wide a market as possible, most Christmas-themed movies come gift-wrapped in a secular brand of sentimentality that completely misses the true meaning of the holiday. But Hollywood finally gets it right with "The Nativity Story" (New Line).
From the opening strains of the soundtrack -- hints of the Advent hymn "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" -- you know you're in good hands.
A composite of the birth narrative accounts in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, embroidered with apocryphal traditions as well as the imaginative inspiration of the filmmaker, the Bible story gets prestigious treatment in director Catherine Hardwicke's artful, reverent and deeply affecting retelling. The film has an excellent international cast and impressive production design similar to that of "The Passion of the Christ," the financial success of which no doubt paved the way for this movie. (Without the blood and controversy, however, "The Nativity Story" should appeal to an even wider audience.)
Filmed in Matera -- the ancient Italian town where Mel Gibson shot "The Passion" -- and Morocco, it opens with prophecy-paranoid King Herod (Ciaran Hinds) plotting to kill all the male babies in Bethlehem.
Flashing back a year, Zechariah (Stanley Townsend) is told by an angelic voice that his wife Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo), though advanced in age, will bear a son.
In Nazareth, her young cousin, Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a peasant girl -- still practically a child and living under the daily uncertainties of Roman occupation -- is informed by her parents, Anna and Joaquim (Hiam Abbass and Shaun Toub), that she is to marry Joseph (Oscar Isaac), an upright carpenter a few years her senior. Troubled over her betrothal to "a man I hardly know, a man I do not love," Mary withdraws to a nearby grove where the Annunciation, nicely handled, takes place, with Alexander Siddig personifying the angel Gabriel who reveals she will give birth to Jesus.
Meanwhile in Persia, the three Magi set out to follow the star westward (explained here as a rare convergence of Venus, Jupiter and an astral body).
What is described with only a few lines in Luke's Gospel becomes the meat of the film, as Joseph and Mary undertake the arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, battling sandstorms, treacherous terrain, hunger and, while passing through Jerusalem, thieves.
Along the way, Hardwicke, raised Presbyterian, weaves in references that foreshadow events in Christ's life: Mary washing Joseph's feet; Joseph expressing anger over merchants in the Temple courtyard; a roadside crucifixion. In a more symbolic allusion, during a river crossing, Mary is imperiled by a snake, echoing the serpent of Eden.
Though the New Testament is sparse on details about Mary and Joseph, the thoughtful screenplay of Mike Rich, a practicing Christian, manages to flesh them out while remaining faithful to Scripture, beautifully suggesting the humanity beneath the halos.
Castle-Hughes conveys maturity well, playing Mary with all the anxieties that anyone would have in her extraordinary situation while having to deal with the disparaging looks of neighbors, the threat of stoning and the incredulity of her own parents. Her mother even hints at rape. Particularly touching is a scene in which Mary sits alone at night pondering why God has chosen her ("I am nothing," she sighs). Likewise, Isaac soulfully essays Joseph with an empathetic decency, as he quietly shoulders his appointed responsibility, while troubled by an abiding sense of inadequacy.
As to the birth of Jesus, it's all there: the shepherds, the Wise Men, etc. Despite some greeting-card gloss, cloying sentimentality is avoided. Throughout the film, Hardwicke never waters down the religious elements to make the story more palatable for nonbelievers, most clearly demonstrated when she has one of the Magi proclaim the radical truth of the Incarnation by declaring that the infant is "God made into flesh."
In a poignant moment that inextricably links the manger to the cross, his fellow traveler -- after his companions have presented their gifts of gold and frankincense -- tearfully offers the Christ Child myrrh "for his sacrifice," portending Jesus' atoning death.
Astute eyes will catch the shot of one of Herod's minions scouring the abandoned cavelike stable after the holy family has fled to Egypt and finding a swaddling cloth draped over the vacant manger, presaging the empty tomb.
Though placed differently from Luke's Gospel, Mary's "Magnificat" is incorporated by Hardwicke in a way that's most effective.
Amid the Christmas pageant elements, there are a few brief images (the slaughter of the innocents, for example) that may upset very young children. Both Mary's and Elizabeth's painful labor are vividly depicted.
The film's hopeful message should resonate beyond Christian audiences to a world still groaning for peace and good will.
The film contains some violent images. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-I -- general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG -- parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
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DiCerto is on the staff of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Goddess thing? If you were a member of that generation, you should remember your Baltimore Catechism then.
Q. 1196. Do we not slight God Himself by addressing our prayers to saints?
A. We do not slight God Himself by addressing our prayers to saints, but, on the contrary, show a greater respect for His majesty and sanctity, acknowledging, by our prayers to the saints, that we are unworthy to address Him for ourselves, and that we, therefore, ask His holy friends to obtain for us what we ourselves are not worthy to ask.
Q. 1215. Is it allowed to pray to the crucifix or to the images and relics of the saints?
A. It is not allowed to pray to the crucifix or images and relics of the saints, for they have no life, nor power to help us, nor sense to hear us.
Q. 1216. Why do we pray before the crucifix and the images and relics of the saints?
A. We pray before the crucifix and the images and relics of the saints because they enliven our devotion by exciting pious affections and desires, and by reminding us of Christ and of the saints, that we may imitate their virtues.
What color should Mary be, then?
You've GOT to be kidding me.
There is not a single Biblical reference to Mary's physical difficulty or a lack of it when giving birth to Jesus. It's the height of arrogance for anyone -- be s/he Catholic, Protestant, or whatever -- to claim knowledge of "the truth" of Christ's birth.
Fr. Geiger quoted the fourth century St. Augustine on the matter saying. "That same power which brought the body of the young man through closed doors, brought the body of the infant forth from the inviolate womb of the mother."
Say whaaaat? When did Jesus go "through closed doors"? Are we talking about the Christ, or Casper the Friendly Ghost?
FWIW: Laura Ingraham, as open and devout a Catholic as exists in daily media, saw The Nativity Story over the weekend and enthusiastically recommended it on this morning's show.
Huh? Could you back that up with something? "Functionally and traditionally...fills the space of a goddess?" What does that really mean?
And what is wrong with that? Wouldn't we expect the truth to be pre-figured in the pagan religions, but fully actualized in the true religion? Mary is what Aphrodite, Artemis, Isis, etc. only pre-figured, just as Jesus is what Baal and Ra and Zeus only pre-figured in a natural and often distorted way. If you think a religious belief should be dismissed because it meets a psychological need, then out goes Christianity. (Just read Dennett's Breaking the Spell).