New Line Cinema’s The Nativity Story, opening nationwide December 1, is a film of several firsts.
Its November 26 premiere at the Vatican’s Pope Paul VI Hall will make it the first film to premiere at the Vatican (another film, Karol: A Man Who Became Pope, would have been first, but after John Paul II’s death that premiere was cancelled and a later screening scheduled). It’s also the first major Hollywood film ever devoted to the real meaning of Christmas (notwithstanding a couple of 1970s TV movies and a foreign film or two).
In addition, The Nativity Story is the first big-screen biblical film to focus on a character who is often cast as a secondary player: Joseph of Nazareth.
Guatemalan newcomer Oscar Isaac plays the part, with a maturity and depth belying his 26 years. At a recent LA press event, Isaac, who described his upbringing as “very Christian,” said that he felt that it was important to make Joseph “as human as possible — to approach him like I would any other character. That’s how I would do him service.”
At the same time, Isaac was aware of the awesome responsibility of portraying the foster father of Jesus: “As much as I would try to treat him as any other character to be fair to him and not make him a walking icon — you go to the Vatican or something on some days off, and look at the paintings, and be like — wow, this is someone who’s inspired artists for years and years and years.”
Isaac realized something else while perusing Vatican art: Joseph may have inspired generations of artists, but he hasn’t always been in the foreground of people’s minds. “I saw a huge tapestry of the [Nativity]… And [Joseph] is in the back with the sheep. He’s really a secondary character, I think, in a lot of people’s eyes.”
“In theological terms,” Isaac added, “it’s really interesting… that Joseph was really an integral part of this happening, and if he had made a couple of different choices, things would have turned out very differently — I mean, I’m sure that God would have found a way, but [Joseph] had a lot of responsibility.”
Screenwriter Mike Rich, a nondenominational Christian, agreed that the film’s focus on St. Joseph was unique. “I can’t recall another film where the evolution of Joseph’s character onscreen has really provided a spine and a backbone to the story. … Of all the characters that were in the script and during the writing of it, no character evolved more on the page than Joseph.”
For producer Marty Bowen, a Catholic and former altar boy, the heroism of Joseph is a significant theme in the Christmas story. “I think it’s a story of heroism, and not heroism in a [WWII hero] Audie Murphy take-over-a-Panzer-division version, but a version of a simple man trying to do what he thinks is right. I think there is something heroic about that.”
By casting a relatively young man as Joseph, the filmmakers chose not to follow a very ancient Christian tradition that understands St. Joseph as an older man, a widower with children. The filmmakers were well aware of this issue, and sought to downplay its significance. “We met actors who were 40 to play the role,” said producer Wyck Godfrey, a Protestant, “so it’s not like we knew going in” what age Joseph would ultimately be. In part, Godfrey indicated, Joseph’s age in the film was determined by the actor they ultimately cast, rather than the other way around.
One after another, the filmmakers hit the same talking points regarding Joseph’s age: No one really knows how old he was; Christian art is not unanimous in depicting him as an older man; life was harder and shorter in those days, so a man in his later twenties then would be comparable to an older man today. “I think I was probably playing him in his forties,” said Isaac, “as somebody who’s lived a long time, even though he’s been on earth for a short time. He’s been around, he’s lived.”
Even today, director Catherine Hardwicke suggested, age is at least somewhat in the eye of the beholder: “It’s all perception… My neice, who’s 20, when she saw the trailer, she goes, ‘Eww, he’s so old!’ ”
As that last comment might suggest, demographics and modern cultural considerations may have been a factor in casting a younger Joseph. Acknowledges Bowen, “We chose not to make him 50 and then have a 16-year-old bride, because I feel like it would have been very difficult to connect with them on a personal level.”
Although The Nativity Story doesn’t portray Joseph as a widower, it also doesn’t depict Joseph and Mary’s relationship as a typical first-century Jewish courtship. While the film doesn’t take a stance one way or the other on the Catholic doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, it finds drama in the obstacles between Joseph and Mary, rather than turning their story, as some retellings have done, into a Hollywood romance.
Isaac put it this way: “How does a man share the woman he loves with God? I mean, that’s what he has to do. He loves God with all his heart, and he loves this woman selflessly, and then he chooses her [rather than another woman]. So he can’t have a family, he can’t have it the way he wanted to, at least not the way he knows it’s going to be. He can’t just live in his little house he was building in Nazareth. He has to literally share this woman [with God].”
St. Joseph provides the film’s emotional center, but he isn’t the only character distinguished by faith and virtue. Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays Mary’s kinswoman Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, praised her character as a woman of great constancy and piety, despite not having been blessed with a child during her childbearing years. For Aghdashloo, creating a pure, selfless character with no trace of venality was a spiritual challenge: “Every morning I was meditating, asking God to take away [anything bad], so I can come up with a pair of eyes that are always smiling… with an unconditional love.”
Though her family was Muslim, Aghdashloo said that she learned from her grandmother “that if I want to know my neighbor, I should know his culture and his religion.” Aghdashloo’s grandmother, who largely raised the actress and her three brothers, seems to have practiced what she preached: She owned a Christian picture Bible in Farsi, and “studied Bible and Torah — she loved learning about other religions.”
Aghdashloo expressed her hope that The Nativity Story might likewise reach viewers beyond the target Christian audience. “If the [viewer] allows himself to let the film empower his imagination… if you do not believe in miracles, just allow this to empower your imagination… [It] might not affect the audience right away, but what it does, when they leave — and to my belief, that’s what a good film should do — it will make them to ask questions.”
Aghdashloo also praised another landmark Christian film — The Passion of the Christ — that the other filmmakers agreed had opened the doors in Hollywood for this and future biblical films. “I love The Passion of the Christ,” said Aghdashloo, “although the two films are taking two different paths.”
“The success of The Passion definitely made this film possible on a studio level,” Godfrey acknowledged. At the same time, he stressed that Hollywood hasn’t exactly been bending over backwards to cash in on The Passion’s success. In the nearly three years since The Passion’s debut, The Nativity Story may be the only big-studio religious film, and certainly the only big-studio Bible film, to benefit from The Passion.
“Even though The Passion had been two years ago, there hadn’t been a lot of, ‘Oh, what’s next? What’s the Christian audience going to embrace next?’“ Godfrey pointed out. “There was an opportunity for this story, which came not from a predestined ‘We’re going to figure out how to tap into that audience.’ It frankly came from a writer saying, ‘I want to tell this story.’ ”
“When you make a film like this, you want the Christian community to embrace it, because that’s your core audience,” Godfrey added. “People want to do these microbudgeted niche films that sort of cater to a very specific audience within Christianity as a whole. Our argument to New Line was, 200 million Americans shouldn’t be considered a niche. We should go back and give them a film with size and scope that that audience deserves and is really frankly wishing was out there. Fifty years ago this would never be a conversation... But for whatever reason Hollywood at some point chose not to explore the Bible for its stories. And I think that’s extremely unfortunate.”
“We wanted to make a movie that a Christian audience would love and want to see at Christmastime,” said Bowen. “But at the same time, for those that don’t believe, but want to… embrace this story and understand why Christians revere it — I think that was a delicate balance we tried to strike.”
Perhaps The Nativity Story may open more doors in Hollywood for future Bible films — especially if it achieves success without Passion-style controversy. “I hope that what’s controversial about this film is the lack of controversy,” said Godfrey. “I really do. I think this is a movie for families, and I certainly hope that people embrace it for that.”
In blogs, discussion boards, and other fora, a range of criticisms and objections concerning The Nativity Story have been raised by concerned Catholics. Some of these critiques are thoughtful and worthy of consideration, and raise issues regarding the film that have merit, or are at least defensible. Other complaints are more problematic, resting on misrepresentations of the film or even of Catholic teaching.
Perhaps The Nativity Story will take its place as the missing Christmas film — the one that actually is about the real “real meaning of Christmas.”
From It’s a Wonderful Life to A Christmas Carol, from Miracle on 34th Street to Tim Allen’s Santa Clause films, there are more Christmas movies than you could watch in all twelve days. Yet even at the height of Hollywood biblical epics, the real meaning of Christmas was essentially ignored (a few brief scenes in Ben-Hur notwithstanding). The Nativity Story goes a long way toward redressing this historic omission.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.