• 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


    Wednesday, June 21, 2017

    La Sacra Famiglia (2006)
    The Holy Family: Jesus, Mary and Joseph

    At 159 minutes long Raffaele Mertes' La Sacra Famiglia (2006) is one of the longest films primarily about the birth and childhood of Jesus, but, surprisingly it's the least "epic" of all of those I have looked at recently.

    It's actually Mertes' second film about the birth/childhood of Jesus, the first being Joseph of Nazareth from six years earlier. Indeed Mertes has become one of the most prolific Bible film producers having also directed Esther(1999), Mary Magdalene (2000), The Apocalypse (2000), Thomas (2001) and Judas (2001). Mertes' seventh and, at the time of writing, final Biblical tele-visual film is one of his better ones however, most notably in the first half whilst the story is still able to stick relativity closely to the gospel accounts.

    The story starts in the period immediately before Mary and Joseph's betrothal. In contrast to almost every Jesus film that covers the subject Mary hails not from Nazareth, but from Jerusalem. She has been orphaned before the start of the film and, in an interesting interpretation, now lives with her aunt and uncle Elizabeth and Zechariah. She's adventurous and fun-loving as a scene where she fashions bed sheets into a rope in order to escape from her room, but also capable of being serious and strong-willed ("I am the one who decides who I will marry").

    Not dissimilarly Joseph also plays against the traditional portrait, at least the one that we find in cinema. Rather than having long had feelings for Mary (and having to bide his time until she, euugh, reached the already rather young marriageable age), he is a widower, himself also something of a rebellious character, who gets chosen to be Mary's husband when a nearby almond tree spontaneously bursts into bloom. It's one of a number of miracles in the film, all of which are handled in a low-key fashion. This is a strong contrast with traditional biblical epics when miracles are typically accompanied by swelling, reverential music. Joseph takes some convincing that anything out of the ordinary has occurred. After all he was only a visitor in Jerusalem, heading home to Nazareth.

    This leads onto another are in which La Sacra Famiglia differs from the traditional biblical epics, its lack of self-seriousness. Again, it's noticeable right from the early scenes that Joseph is often a source of mild comic relief, notably when his donkey refuses to behave as he wants it to. There's something of Au Hasard Balthasar here, with the donkey as a divine agent who honks just in time to prevent Mary and Joseph kissing in an early scene, and kicks Joseph to prevent him from leaving Mary later on. The donkey is a divine fool, acting for God yet nevertheless providing comic relief. This contrasts with the approach of the classic epics where the aesthetic only works if everyone keeps a straight face (even if they give the impression they might have been a lot of fun to make).

    Mary and Joseph's arrival back in Nazareth causes something of a stir. Like Mertes' Joseph of Nazareth Joseph has children from his previous marriage (in line with Catholic and Orthodox theology rather than Protestant). These have grown up to the age whereby they are far closer to Mary's age than is their father, and her fiancé. Indeed James also seems to be attracted to Mary and while his dad seems a little unsure about about marrying her, James shows far less reticence. Joseph is a little thrown by this but Mary's strength of character comes through again. "I must follow God's will, not James's. I'm promised to you". Joseph concerns ("I'm old enough to be your father.") are soon alleviated.

    In addition to Joseph's sons, James and Judas, we're also introduced to other members of the family, such as Joseph's daughter Sarah, his brother Cleopas (and, of course Mary's uncle, who we met in the almond-tree scene above, is Zechariah the priest). There's a real suggestion, then, that most of those associated with following Jesus during his lifetime were members of his own family.

    Things are complicated further when Joseph has to head away for work for a few months. Joseph has noted something going on between James and Mary, and so he leaves Judas in charge. It's during this prolonged absence that Mary has a vision from God by which she understands that she is to give birth. Interestingly whereas one of the characteristics of many epics is the audible voice of God, here the message is conveyed silently so that only Mary hears it and using techniques such as slow-motion and hand-held camerawork which tend to feauture in epics only during battle scenes. When Joseph returns he is naturally dismayed, but quickly realises he loves Mary and decides without apparent divine intervention (aside from his donkey) that he should stay with her.

    The film adopts a more traditional approach for the remainder of part one, Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem, find a stable and host unusual visitors. The most notable moment here is when Joseph rushes off to find the village mid-wife - the only time I can recall the use of an unknown midwife in amongst all the birth of Jesus films I have seen.

    The second half of the film never quite matches the strengths of the first. As Catherine O'Brien observes "efforts to depict the childhood of Jesus are fraught with danger". (2016: 456) Not only does the audience know Jesus' survival is assured, but once Herod dies there is no real antagonist (save perhaps a sulky James, and some immigrant hating Egyptians) and rather than re-working a familiar and cherished tale, as with the first part of the film, the second half is largely what was created by the screenwriter.

    Nevertheless, La Sacra Famiglia is one of the better dramatisations of the birth and childhood of Jesus. Certainly the first half, which can stand by itself, will get repeat viewings around Christmas time in years to come.

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