The youth group of St John's made an outing to the cineplex across the street from the church this afternoon to take in The Nativity Story, and they very kindly invited their Rector to accompany them, which I was all too happy to do. I enjoy movies, and I am, by professional commitment if nothing else, a fan of the nativity story, generically construed, so it was a no-brainer.
In my alter ego fantasy world, where I am a film maker (among several other things), I have long fantasized about doing a project of this sort. I don't think it's ever been done particularly well. There are a couple of what I consider worthy efforts that deal with the other end of Jesus' life on this planet--Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ and Mel Gibson's more recent The Passion of the Christ. But nothing of comparable edginess--nothing that I am aware of, at any rate--has been done with the beginning of the story.
I walked into the theater with modest expectations, and was therefore only slightly disappointed. It has been slammed by critics as being essentially a Sunday School Christmas pageant with a big budget and great costumes, and that assessment is not far from the mark. There were some bright spots: Framing the story as a flashback from the slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem, and then weaving three distinct strands--the folks in Nazareth, Herod & Company in Jersusalem, and the Magi making their way in from Persia. The musical score, while not outstanding, showed some imagination by just hinting at several classic Christmas carols without ever indulging in a clear and complete statement of any of them. Depiction of village life in Nazareth--particularly life on the edge of economic viability and in constant fear of Roman tyranny--was nicely done. And, like I said, the costumes were great.
Broadly speaking, however, the film is...How shall I put this?...unchallenging. It may as well have been made by Hallmark. It's a harmonized redaction of the gospel material from Luke and Matthew, garnished with a sprinkling of John (from a most unlikely source--one of the Magi commenting on his gift being fit for a God who has been made flesh), then amplified with such creative details as the arranged betrothal of Mary to Joseph (Mary was not pleased) and the way in which her pregnancy was revealed to all concerned.
That said, I have two comments: First, The Nativity Story does no harm. It does not fail to achieve what it attempts, because it doesn't attempt much. If it is not high art, neither is it bad catechesis. I was glad to have our youth group there. Reinforcing the gospel infancy narratives--narratives that will shortly figure prominently in their liturgical experience--and doing so in a dramatic and compelling way, is not a bad thing. As a pastor, I was grateful for it.
But as a lover of the cinematic arts, I was left hungry. And I have finicky tastes. If I'd like to see something that transcends the level of greeting card piety, that doesn't mean I'm looking for something that is scandalous or iconoclastic. I'm not looking for a film that distorts or mocks how Christians have apprehended the biblical story of Jesus' birth just in order to shock, or just because it can be done. No, I am looking for something that is apparently elusive, because I'm not aware of it ever having been done. I'm looking for something that is sympathetic to--or at least respects--Christian piety, but is also imaginatively speculative both in presenting the details that the gospel evangelists do give us and in filling in what they leave blank. In other words, something edgy. I've got a few ideas, but I'll save them for when a producer contacts me!