True to Nativity

By  Michael Higgins
  • December 19, 2006
Myroslaw Tataryn, theologian, priest and acting president of St. Jerome's University in the University of Waterloo, made a personal note in his annual Christmas card that this coming celebration will be a "first Christmas" for our family and times such as these are special. He meant, of course, that this Christmas will be a first for us in a new home and in a new city and that we should mark it as such.
How we celebrate Christmas varies from year to year because circumstances change. As well, various external events impinge on the festivity in ways positive and negative. But Christmas always happens.

The original or primordial Christmas — the Incarnation — was a dramatic event without equal but capturing that drama in art is torturously difficult. And I think that this is especially the case with film.

Just last week I went to see the new release, The Nativity Story, and found myself ever thankful that the film was not directed by Mel Gibson, he of The Passion of the Christ fame, a director who delights in making his audience wince with discomfort, a director whose taste for bloodletting is matched only by Quentin Tarantino.  Can you imagine if Gibson had approached the Nativity with the same spirit of excess he did with the Passion? What would it be like watching each one of the Holy Innocents dispatched with grisly realism?

Fortunately for me Gibson didn't direct The Nativity Story, although the one who did, Catherine Hardwicke, is herself an acquired taste for the squeamish. Still, in this film she has exercised considerable restraint by comparison to her earlier work and has chosen in fact to create a work that is ploddingly reverential. No gore here, no blasphemy, no bold speculation. In fact, the two nativity scenes themselves — that of John the Baptist and that of Jesus — are anything but messy, confusing, bloody and fear-inducing. Seems like a cinch, actually, this birthing stuff.

Gibson may have given us too much reality but Hardwicke's Hallmark sentimentalism has its own drawbacks. The Nativity Story — with script by Mike Rich — is a literal rendering of the nativity stories in the Gospels, with safe embellishments to expand the skeletal narrative provided by Matthew and Luke. Fair game. Rich is on safe ground when he insinuates familial intrigue in the court of Herod the Great, invents dialogue between Mary's parents and herself, and inserts words into the mouth of the taciturn and noble Joseph.

Care has been taken to ensure verisimilitude and the performance of the Maori drama prodigy Keisha Castle-Hughes as a Mary who is an alternately confused and yet resolved, fearful yet courageous, adolescent, is particularly effective. The heavy pious overlay has produced a restrictive caution when it comes to taking liberties with the text and this has resulted in a film treatment that is respectful, safe and with few surprises. But it is also a necessary and welcome film, in my view, because it can introduce to untold numbers the foundational component of the Christian narrative.

In the 1960s Northrop Frye and Jay Macpherson of Victoria University in the University of Toronto took great pains to warn educators that the failure to familiarize students with the Roman and Greek myths would result in intellectual and cultural impoverishment when it comes to understanding the history that shapes us. Such is increasingly now true for those who have no familiarity with the Christian narrative as well. Given that film is the most popular of art forms, it cannot help but be good to have a film that simply tells the story, a story that we can no longer assume enjoys wide currency in Canadian society.

It is very difficult to capture cinematically the human drama at the heart of the Incarnation.  Various visual artists and composers have succeeded in penetrating to some level the mystery of the Incarnation — think of Carpaccio and Berlioz respectively — but the wordsmiths and film auteurs have been flummoxed by the near impossible task of approximating something of the human drama at the heart of the greatest drama. After all, the struggle is in Mary's fiat and that is tough to distil on camera or on stage.

In the end, it is not really a matter of esthetics as much as it is catechetics. And it is worth seeing the film in spite of Mychal Danna's bewildering musical score — a melange of carols, hymns and original work — that at one point provides a bar or two of "Silent Night" against the backdrop of the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt. It may be bloodless in more ways than one, but The Nativity Story (already among the top dozen in box office grosses this season) is worth more than a passing glance.

(Dr. Higgins is president and vice-chancellor of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B.)

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