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  • Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.


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    Matt Page

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    Tuesday, June 13, 2017

    Nativity Films Revisited


    In the run up to the release of The Nativity Story back in 2006 I drew up a list of films about the birth and childhood of Jesus. I've come across quite a few more over the last decade so here's an update. I've put in a few links of interest, but haven't had time to link even to all the bits and pieces on these films even on my own blog. Overall, if you include this year's forthcoming The Star, that makes 50 films excluding documentaries (which compares to the mere 19 films I listed in 2006)

    -La naissance de Jésus (1908) - Pathé
    -The Star of Bethlehem (1908) - Edison - 10 mins - B/W
    -The Birth of Jesus (1909) - France - short - hand tinted colour
    -La Nativité (1910) - France - short - B/W
    -Herod and the Newborn King (1910) - France - Gaumont - B/W
    -Star of Bethlehem (1912) review B/W - 3 reeler -
    -The Three Wise Men (1913) - US-Selig - - 1000 ft - B/W
    -The Birth of our Saviour (1914) - US - Edison - - 1000ft - B/W
    -Naissance de Jésus (1914) link Dir: Maurice-André Maître, starring: Jacques Normand
    -L 'Enfance de Jesus (1914) link
    -Der Stern von Bethlehem (1921) - Germany - B/W - Lotte Reiniger
    -Reina de reinas: La Virgen María - Mexican (1948)
    -Mater Dei (1950) - Italy - 80 minutes - dir: Emilio Cordero
    -A Child is Born (1950) - US-NBC TV - 30 mins - B/W
    -The Play of the Nativity of Jesus Christ (1952) - US - Studio One in Hollywood
    -The Star of Bethlehem (1954) - James Mason brief review
    -The Star of Bethlehem (1956) - D/GB - 90 mins (re-release of the Reiniger film with narration in English) brief review
    -Erode il grande [Herod the Great] (1959) - Italy/France - 93 mins - colour - dir: Arnaldo Genoino
    -Hvezda Betlemska (1969) - Czechoslovakia - (The Star of Bethlehem) - 10 mins - animated colour.
    -Jesus, Maria Y Jose (1972) - pictured - 92 minutes YouTube
    -The Small One (1978) - US-short - 20 mins - colour
    -The Nativity (1978) - US-TV - 98 mins - colour
    -Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith (1979)- Ca-TV - 152 mins - colour (review)
    Cammina, Cammina [Keep on Walking] (1982) - Italy - 171 mins - colour
    -Deux heures moins le quart avant Jésus-Christ (1982) review
    -Hail Mary (1985) link, review
    -Un bambino di nome Gesù - A Child Called Jesus (dir. Franco Rossi, 1987) FilmChat
    -L'Annonce faite a Marie (1991) - dir. Alain Cuny
    -Per amore solo per amore (1993) - Penélope Cruz
    -Marie de Nazareth (1994) Jean Delannoy Fr/B/Mor
    -La Estrella de Belen [Star of Bethlehem] (1998) Spain
    -Mary Mother of Jesus (1999) Bale
    -Close to Jesus: Joseph of Nazareth (2000)
    -Maria, figlia del suo figlio (2000) dir: F. Costa, Italy
    -The Nativity (2000) Latter Day Saints
    -Saint Mary (2001) dir. Shahriar Bohrani, Iran
    -Los Reyes Magos [The Magi-Kings] (2003) Spain
    -Maria - Mãe do Filho de Deus (2003)
    -The Nativity Story (2006) central page
    -La Sacre Famiglia (2006)
    -The Fourth King (2006)
    -La stella dei re (2007) Italian - 90 minutes
    -Birdsong (2008)
    -Little Baby Jesus of Flandr (2010)
    -BBC Nativity (2010)
    -On Angel Wings (2014) animated short - review
    -Joseph and Mary (2016)
    -The Young Messiah (2016) review
    -Le Fils de Joseph (2016)
    -The Star (2017) - Sony Animation

    The very earliest films about Jesus were Passion Plays and as the twentieth century began these began to expand to include other episodes from the life of Jesus, including the Nativity story. The situation is complicated by the fact that these earliest tableau films were often sold in individual sections so it is difficult to work out which of the Pathé films were released in their own right.

    Nevertheless, the first Nativity epic was probably Thanhouser's 1912 The Star of Bethlehem which at three reels would have run for approximately 45 minutes. Whilst only a reel's worth of material survives it's clear to see rudimentary elements of the biblical epic already in place. Herod's lavish palace is packed with beautiful courtiers in exotic dress and Herod's outfit reveals his muscular limbs. According to the Thanhouser Vimeo page for the film, its special effects, which "took a week's work",  include a bright star that appears to shepherds and magi alike and a choir of angels appear in the stable to celebrate the saviour's birth, both indicators of divine activity. There is also impressive architecture, a 200-strong cast and a reputed cost of $8,000. .

    Whilst there were a number of other silent films based on the Nativity, such as Lotte Reinger's silhouetted Der Stern von Bethlehem (1921) it would not be until 1948 that a more expansive film was released. At 85 minutes, the Mexican Reina de reinas: La Virgen María (Queen of Queens: The Virgin Mary, 1948) was the longest film yet primarily focussed on Mary. Two years later the Italian film Mater Dei (Mother of God, 1950), covered the period from Mary's own childhood to Jesus' ministry. The decade witnessed vast swathes of 'pepla' such as Erode il grande (Herod the Great, 1959) which ends with Herod ordering the slaughter of the innocents as an almost casual command after hearing the story from a shepherd (there's no sign of the magi).

    The 1950s also saw the first television adaptations of the Nativity story with four productions in the decade's first six years. A similar trend occurred in the latter part of the 1970s when both The Nativity (1978) and Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith (1979) were broadcast. Only one feature length film was produced in this period, a low-budget Mexican film Jesus, Maria y José (Jesus, Mary and Joseph, 1972).

    Widely regarded as quiet period for biblical films in general, there were a number of significant, feature-length, films released in the 1980s. Whilst this included traditional style Bible films such as Un bambino di nome Gesù (A Child Called Jesus,  1987) the majority took more unconventional approaches such as Jean Luc Godard's controversial Je vous salue Marie (Hail Mary, 1985), the comedy Deux heures moins le quart avant Jésus-Christ (Quarter to two before Jesus Christ, 1982) and the longest of all Nativity-themed films the Italian Cammina, Cammina (Keep on Walking, 1982). This popularity continued into the 1990s and the start of the twentieth century. Notable releases include Penélope Cruz in Per amore solo per amore (For Love, Only for Love, 1993) and Christian Bale in Mary, the Mother of Jesus (1999) as well as several films from Italy France and Spain, however none of these were the kind of big-budget spectacles that are associated with the biblical epic.

    This was about to change however with the unexpected success of an independently made Bible film which also gave significant focus to the relationship between Jesus and his mother - The Passion of the Christ (2004). This emboldened New Line into giving the green light to The Nativity Story (2006) and there have been several other films since which I suspect wouldn't have seen the light of day otherwise. It is noticeable, for example, that almost all of the films made since The Passion have been English language films. Regular readers may have noticed I have discussed a few of these in recent weeks and I intend to cover some of the others in more detail than fits here in the next few weeks as well.

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