Nativity gets Hollywood treatment

By  Sara Loftson, The Catholic Register
  • November 10, 2006

nativityTORONTO - The latest film in Hollywood's fascination with Christ is about to hit the theatres. The Nativity Story will be released in early December just in time for the Christmas season.

But while it's simple to measure box office sales, it's not as easy to assess how well this film and other such movies fare as tools of evangelization.

The film, written by Mike Rich and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, combines different elements of the various Gospels. It focuses on character development, exploring the emotions of Mary and Joseph, the three wise men and King Herod in reaction to the events leading up to Christ's birth 2,000 years ago.

Alliance Atlantis and New Line Cinema, which produced The Lord of the Rings, have teamed up with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada to promote the film. Church leaders were invited to preview the film at private screenings across the country in late October and early November.

Jeff Thiessen, president of On Purpose, a broadcast marketing company based in Winnipeg, provides church leaders with tips at the screenings on how to promote the film in their churches, ideas such as renting out theatres to view the film.

While nobody approached Canada's Catholic bishops to promote the film, several Catholics have been invited to the EFC prescreening events.

Archbishop James Weisgerber of Winnipeg is the only Canadian bishop to view the film by The Register's press time. Weisgerber said he will not be promoting the film in any official way in his archdiocese.

"I don't think I will, this is a commercial kind of thing," said Weisgerber.

"I remember hearing someone on the radio encourage parents not to see the film (The Chronicles of Narnia), but read the book. I had the same reaction with The Nativity Story."

Weisgerber said going to watch the film can't be a substitute for reading the Bible.

"The Gospel is very, very rich and there are many theological points that are made and that gets flattened out making a nice story."

But, Weisgerber said, the film itself is delightful.

"It provides interesting insights, lots of imagination is used. It's clear some very good research has gone into this."

Fr. John Perry, S.J., who teaches at St. Paul's College at the University of Manitoba, also saw the film with Weisgerber. He plans to show the film as an education tool for his students.

"I can't deny it's Hollywood that made the movie, nor that the company has to make significant profit or else they won't keep on making these movies," said Perry. "That's why it's important we Evangelicals and Catholics support the movie.... If it doesn't fly commercially that will be it for this kind of movie."

He said the fact that the movie didn't focus on Herod's vices to create a more violent film showed it wasn't meant to pander to a theatre-going public only interested in a violent action flick.

Perry has seen how Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ had a lasting effect on one of his non-religious students.

"She just found it extremely high impact and she had to find out more about Christianity."

He said this film could have a similar effect on the unchurched. For the faithful it will "confirm their faith, deepening their devotion."

Sr. Rose Pacatte, FSP, founding director of the Pauline Centre for Media Studies in Los Angeles, considers herself a friend of the film. Pacatte, who writes movie reviews for St. Anthony Messenger magazine in the United States, and other Christian journalists were invited to meet the cast and give feedback about the shoot on location in Matera, Italy.

"Mike Rich wants to tell stories about ordinary people who have done extraordinary things," Pacatte said.

While on set she found out Rich is a non-denominational Christian, married to a Catholic. Co-producer Marty Bowen is a Catholic from Texas and director Hardwicke is a Presbyterian.

"If these stories are well told they will touch people and evangelize," said Pacatte. "If they are made as instruments of evangelization they'll get top heavy on message and they are no longer stories, they become sermons and when that happens the audience gets bored and feel like they are being preached to."

Pacatte wrote a study guide to film and edited a book of essays, The Nativity Story: Contemplating Mary's Journey of Faith, published by Pauline Books and Media Publications. The collection of essays focuses on different aspects of Mary's journey, as journeying was a major theme of the film.

Of the 11 female contributors, three are from Toronto including Marilyn Elphick, Selema Lei and Sr. Marie Paul.

"As an aspiring filmmaker I believe film is one of the most powerful forms of media today. It's pre-evangelization in the sense it helps us as an audience to ask questions that we need to ask to be open to Christ," said Paul.

Paul said this film is an opportunity for collaboration.

"Instead of being at odds with the culture, we can work with it."

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