Film and Mary

In Retrospective

– Michael Duricy

Since, in large part, The Nativity Story, retells an old story promulgated to many from the Christian Scriptures, much of the material will be familiar. The angelic Annunications to Joseph and Mary, her visit to her Elizabeth, the journey to Bethlehem for Jesus' birth under a wondrous star, the visits of the shepherds and the magi not long afterward, the massacre of the innocents by the paranoid Herod--all these well-known parts of the story--are present in this film (and in many other earlier bible films as well). The first feature-length film on the life of Christ, Olcott’s 1912 From the Manger to the Cross included them too. This early high-budget blockbuster was filmed in the Holy Land, and Hardwicke's late scene of the Holy Family crossing the desert by camel past two small pyramids, seems to be an homage to the original in Olcott.

Over one hundred films about the historical life of Jesus since the birth of cinema, and elements from some of these earlier films appear to have influenced this most recent product. For example, Zeffirelli's 1977 Jesus of Nazareth, showed Joseph dreaming in agitation about Mary being stoned before being assured by God's angel of her virtue. The scene in Hardwicke’s film seemed too similar to allow for coincidence. Similarly, to my knowledge, Zeffirelli was to first to present discomfort in Mary's labor, also a notable feature in the recent film.

However, in most all traditional "life of Christ" films, Jesus is unquestionably the central figure, and Mary always holds a supporting role (as she does in the biblical canon). Though smaller in number, and more recent, there is also a special class of films--which I call "life of Mary" films--in which Mary plays a central role in the story [perhaps even THE central role, as in Mary, Mother of Jesus (1999)].

The first of these was Mater Dei in 1950, but the remainder start with Kowalski's The Nativity in 1978 and Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith the following year. Set before Jesus' adult ministry (indeed, often even before his conception) these stories require lead characters other than the Lord; and Mary and Joseph are natural choices (as they were for the inspired authors of the infancy narratives). In Mary and Joseph: ..., actors played the holy couple basically as contemporary teens, a choice which played well with young viewers and which could also be said to characterize the new film.

It is worth noting that is most of these "life of Mary" films, Mary is presented having an active influence on her parents choice for her arranged marriage. Hardwicke follows suit in this, taking it to an extreme I have not seen before. In this choice, the film follows the tone of The Whale Rider (Keisha Castle-Hughes last important film) instead. Another example ... there are moving scenes in which Jewish women informally teach young children their religious roots in The Nativity Story resembling similar scenes in The Whale Rider showing the training of children in their ethnic culture.

To paraphrase Umberto Eco, "every piece of literature comments on every earlier work." The same is true of films; and better knowledge of earlier films helps us understand Hardwicke’s new film better. Though it retells an old, old story, there are still new facets to appreciate. Joseph's role is more substantial and more admirable than ever before. And there is an innovative emphasis on pregnancy and delivery in the film's presentation of both Mary and Elizabeth. Finally, there is a serious, realistic tone absent in much of the saccharine films of old.

More Information

International Marian Research Institute

300 College Park 
Dayton, Ohio 45469 

Connect