• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Sunday, June 18, 2017

    Joseph and Mary (2016)

    Joseph and Mary is just one of five films from 2016 and 2017 to make an explicit attempt to cover the birth and childhood of Jesus. The Star and Chasing the Star are both due for release later this year, The Young Messiah was the highest profile release of those from last year and Le Fils de Joseph won acclaim on the art house circuit. Which leaves Joseph and Mary a Christian movie distributed by PureFlix and directed by Roger Christian. The film's biggest star is Kevin Sorbo, best known for his work in another epic production the TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-1999).

    Indeed, from the start, the film makes clear its aspirations to fit the mould of the classic biblical epics of the 1950s and 1960s, John Rhys-Davies' rich, Welsh, voice narrating exactly the same kind of prologue, one "in which the voice of history defines...the significance of the world-historical contest to be enacted". (Babington and Evans 1993: 181)
    It was the year of our Lord, Jerusalem was ruled by King Herod the Great. Ruthless and greedy he ignored the laws of God and chose the favours of Rome over his own people. But from the darkness emerged light. The time had come to bear witness to a 2000 year prophecy: a child of God would be born.
    Rhys-Davies' close association with epic films, and indeed biblical films, in his younger days gives his introduction extra significance, a trusted and authoritative voice of experience, "old-world knowledge" and "apostolic wisdom". (Babington and Evans 1993: 182). As with the opening of King of Kings (1961) the voice-over is accompanied by images of the temple set against the clear blue sky.

    When the film descends to street level to pick up the story, we find that the annunciation, and the accompanying emotional drama, has already happened. Furthermore, Mary conceiving outside of marriage does not seems to have caused the least bit of controversy. Indeed they remain close friends of the local rabbi/Pharisee Elijah and a recent young widow, Rebecca. This couple form a contrasting pair with Mary and Joseph, particularly Elijah who is selfless and good. Indeed his devotion to his Jewish faith marks him as exactly the kind of positive, yet fully Jewish, character that was so needed in The Passion of the Christ (2004).

    In contrast, Rebecca is afflicted by the urge for revenge. The same soldier, Tiberius, kills her husband in the opening scene, then her two children during the slaughter in Bethlehem. As the years pass, her thirst for revenge remains unquenched. When her and Elijah are reunited with Mary and Joseph twelve years later (in the moments after Jesus has been lost in the temple) Elijah and Rebecca have married. Rebecca is no longer clad in the black of the opening scenes, and unusually for a character set on revenge, her desire for it has not corroded her soul entirely, but she is still determined to get even.

    The appearance of Jesus in Jerusalem is also interesting for the way it portrays Judaism. Not for the first time in the film there is debate amongst the Jewish leaders which manages to be passionate yet jovial. The men clearly love the cut and thrust of debate, and to defend their own ideas and listen to those of others as a natural part of faith and community, rather than as a source of conflict and division. These men are arguing together because they like one another, not because they don't. Jesus brings another angle to the discussion. It's welcomed and they are impressed, but they don't stand back in awe as if centuries of learning have suddenly fallen by the wayside. Again this is a very positive portrayal of Judaism, and not merely one where all the good characters are Christians-in-waiting.  

    However, the downside of this extra emphasis on Elijah and Rebecca, in addition to that on Joseph and Jesus, is that Mary is very much pushed to the margins. Indeed not only are Joseph, Jesus, Elijah and Rebecca more prominent than Mary, but even Tiberius, the Roman. As with Lucius in King of Kings (1961) and Severus in The Young Messiah (2016), Tiberius is a member of the roman-who-keeps-crossing-paths-with-Jesus trope, encountering the holy family at several points along the story's extended timeline. He first enters the story before Jesus' birth; then doesn't quite encounter them at the slaughter of the innocents; and then again later after the twelve-year-old Jesus' trip to Jerusalem. He also seems to be the character tasked with injecting a bit of camp into proceedings given the shortness of his tunic and sleeves.

    However it's not just the presence of other characters that squeezes Mary's screen time, it's that even the parts of the story where you would expect to find her role to be more prominent are strangely compressed, often even as Joseph's role is inflated. So the term of Mary's pregnancy is shortened; Joseph's efforts to find her a suitable place to have the baby are dramatised and fleshed out. The birth and the arrival of the magi are shown only in montage; Joseph's dream and the resultant flight to Egypt is expanded. As much time is spent on the holy family meeting Simeon and Anna as is spent on Jesus' birth, and even then Mary speaks only once in the scene.

    That said, perhaps this is just a matter of personal preference over subject matter. After all of the twelve most recent film versions of the Nativity, (going back all the way to the release of The Nativity Story in 2006), this is the only film to even mention Mary in the title. There's no reason why looking at the story from Joseph's point of view is without merit, in fact Raffaele Mertes did precisely that with Joseph of Nazareth in 2000. And this is what we see. Whereas other Jesus films, such as Roberto Rossellini's Il Messia (1975) and Mary the Mother of Jesus (1999) showed moments where Mary is heard passing on the Precise form of phrases that he is recorded as saying during his ministry, here we hear Joseph talking to Mary and Elijah about having love for an enemy.

    Again this is the sort of slightly too pleased-with-itself connection touch that would not be out of place in a 1950s epic. Elsewhere, Jesus says to Elijah rather portentously "It seems we are at the crossroads Rabbi. Are you coming with me?" And then there are the unexpected connections such as it emerging that Jesus' uncle is Joseph of Arimathea.

    Indeed, whilst the film doesn't have the budget to give the visuals that epic feel and the soundtrack of largely consisting of synthesizer and string quartet lacks the militaristic pomp (Wood) that full orchestras gave to the major Hollywood epics. Nevertheless in many ways this is the film that has most attempted to walk in the footsteps of the epics of years gone by. The bright colours, prologue, sense of its own importance, camp and re-use of actors already established in the genre all capture something of a interestingly nostalgic return to the biblical epics in their heyday.



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