What is special about this film, first released five years ago? The screenwriter for the film, Mark Rich, had the idea of presenting the story of Jesus’ birth as first and foremost told through the characters involved in the story, how they are changed and affected by a miraculous event. He had imagined that such a film could not be made by a major film studio, but perhaps owing to the success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion two years before, the project was welcomed. The script itself served to draw in the director Catherine Hardwicke, who at first wondered why she had received such a script for her perusal. But while reading it, she found she liked the idea of the movie trying to make Mary into a real person.
The film is moving, taking you into the world of long ago, into the villages and cities of the past. One critic suggests that Hardwicke overloads the film with historical detail, (i.e., showing the wheat harvested and the cheese made) but the actors keep the action on the story, so that the authenticity does not intrude itself too much. One is reminded of how hard everyone (or almost everyone, since King Herod doesn’t have to bestir himself physically) had to work in those days. The angel in the film looks just like a person, but how can you depict an angel anyway? It reminds me of a preacher who laughed at commercially produced angels with rosy cheeks and golden hair while noting that when angels do appear in the Bible, the first thing they usually say is “Fear not”, which suggests their awesome and even terrifying appearance.
Mary is courageous, and believable in her conviction of the rightness of what has befallen her, while at the same time fearful for her situation. Without her cousin Elizabeth, she stands alone and condemned, even by her loving parents. Interestingly enough, some Catholic discussion of the film focused on whether or not Mary could feel pain in giving birth, or whether she could be so humanly upset with her parents, as she is when they announce her betrothal. In my view, the only thing basically Catholic that is missing from the film is the view that Mary’s parents might not have fully understood their daughter’s plight, but would have cherished and honored her word above all.
It is touching to see how Joseph changes, from his first shock and dumfounded grief to his new awareness of his role and responsibility towards Mary – in essence, his feelings toward her child. As they journey to Bethlehem together, the film shows their growing closeness and love for each other, all the more marked when they seem so alone, so far from family ties. If you glanced at or considered this film briefly before, I suggest giving it a more patient audience, leaving aside all the preconceptions that this story holds for us today. You will be rewarded.