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There have been relatively few films made about the nativity, and nearly all of those that have been made tell the story from the perspective of Mary and Joseph. Cammina, Cammina is in many ways the perfect Epiphany movie as it moves Mary and Joseph to the sidelines, and focuses instead on the longer and even more perilous journey made by the wise men. In doing so it is able to examine the nativity story in general as well as the idea of pilgrimage with far more depth. Its flawed and ordinary protagonists make the piece far less deferential than most of the standard treatments of the story.
Indeed ideas of journey and pilgrimage are so dominant that film has run for two hours before any of Matthew's story is covered. Were someone without a TV guide to stumble across this film one night just after it began, they could watch for around two-thirds of the film without knowing which story it was portraying. Unusually, that might actually be the best way to view the film. It would certainly give the viewer a greater affinity with the film's protagonists – unsure of what they let themselves in for and ultimately arriving at a nativity scene that is so incredibly low key that it is something of an anti-climax.
Certainly the pilgrims are unsure what to make of what they discover. Olmi manages to create an atmosphere which definitely suggests that something special has occurred, yet at the same time it appears utterly unremarkable. The desperate poverty of the holy couple, and their lowly stable is somewhat tempered by the poverty of the pilgrims themselves.
In the bible, Luke's account of the shepherds visiting Jesus comes complete with a full angelic visitation. Matthew's account of the magi is far sparser (vivid dreams aside), and Olmi visualises this perfectly. The people find what they have travelled to find, and yet, when they do, they are uncertain about what exactly they have found. Ultimately, they accept that they have found what they were searching for, simply because all the clues they have had seem to point that way. But they are more than a little unsure that it all adds up. Released just three short years after Life of Brian which began with three over eager magi barging into the wrong stable, Cammina, Cammina shows us the other side of the same coin, albeit it in a more reserved fashion.
Traditionally, of course, this unspecified number of magi, has been pictured as three wise men, or even kings. Olmi sticks with this tradition, deftly combining the wise men / kings traditions by portraying Jesus's visitors as wise men who are represent their respective kings. They even wear crowns on more formal occasions as a sign that they carry their kings' authority. Moreover, these three travellers are each accompanied by a sizeable entourage. Some have come because they have little choice in the matter, others because they have seen the star and want to meet the person who it honours.
This is quite a different portrayal than the recent movie The Nativity Story. There the magi, who are largely present for comic relief, travel alone, and are friends and colleagues long before they see the star. In contrast, this film depicts the magi as meeting up for the first time relatively late on in the film, having solely followed Mel(chior) and his party for the first couple of hours. This enables the character of Mel to be put under the microscope and fleshed out, and it is this that gives the film much of its interest. We are in his presence long enough to get a really good understanding of his character, his passion, his devotion, the things that make him tick, his strengths and flaws. Mel is a man deeply routed in the Jewish tradition, frequently breaking out into a citation from the Hebrew bible. He is so well respected by his people, that many of them follow him when he announces that he is going to find the king who is represented by this new star.
At the same time he also has his flaws. Despite being so immersed in the scriptures he is stuck for ideas when the caravan fails to find the new born king in Jerusalem. It is one of the younger women who suggest going to "Bethlehem". He is deeply disappointed by the scene he finds there. Whilst he is sharp enough to spot that soldiers might attack the village, and warns the other magi, he fails to tell Mary and Joseph. Later on, one of his followers hands a stinging rebuke both for not staying to defend them, and for hanging on to part of an offering that the people had taken earlier.
As the film ends it grows more and more deeply ambiguous. It is unclear whether or not Mel did the right thing. It is perhaps unlikely his people could have defended themselves against the soldiers, yet the closing scenes, which show the adults of Bethlehem lying murdered as well as the infants, is, nevertheless, fairly damning. Unlike most versions of the nativity we do not even know for certain that the new family has escaped. In fact given that the village is never named, it is not even certain that this is Mary and Joseph. Strangely the only quote from one of the gospels is from the Gospel of Thomas. ("Lift a stone and you will find me, divide a log and I will be there")
The film ends with Mel's party arriving back, joyously, at their home town. The brevity with which the return journey is dealt with is in stark contrast with the lengthy portrayal of the outward journey. As noted above this forms this body of the film. Whilst initially the events that occur on the way appear quite random, in fact, they all reflect various stories related to Jesus.
So we see a shepherd lead his sheep through the camp (the Good Shepherd). We see a wedding party (reminiscent both of parables about wedding feasts, and of John's metaphor for the church – the bride of Christ). We see his followers drift off the path or land on rocky ground like the seed in the parable of the sower. We see a rich man who has brought all his belongings with him, and is unwilling to risk them to see Jesus. Finally we see those unable to follow the narrow way. On top of this the images of the people trailing after their leader through the desert is strongly reminiscent of Moses and the people of Israel.
Hence whilst the film portrays the pilgrimage of Mel and those that follow him to their destination, their journey reflects the challenges all believers face on their own, spiritual journeys.
Labels: Nativity - Mary Joseph