• 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.

    Wednesday, December 13, 2017

    The Nativity (1978)


    The demise of the biblical epic in the 1960s saw adaptation of the Bible moving instead onto television. With budgets greatly reduced the spectacular aspects of the epic were less affordable resulting in the Californian desert typically standing in for the Holy Land, impressive sets being kept to a minimum and the cast of thousands being downsized. Yet through this the polished nature of the epic nature remained. The grimy 'realism' that typifies modern epics had not yet been conceived and so viewed today, these TV epics, with their overly shampooed hair, soft focus and preponderance of fair skin, appear hopelessly anachronistic.

    The Nativity (1978) starring a twenty year old Madeleine Stowe as Mary and featuring John Shea's debut performance as Joseph, is just such a film. Aside from Jesus' parents the rest of the cast is packed with famous British actors: Leo McKern as Herod the Great, driven mad by the his former wife Mariamme's betrayal; Kate O'Mara as Salome, just not the one usually associated with the Herods; and John Rhys Davies as the Nestor, one of a trio of Herod's advisers who end up on a strange sort of hunt for a coming messiah.

    The film starts in the court of Herod the Great (Leo McKern) as he bemoans and the lack of love his people feel for him. One of its strengths is the way it emphasises the Jewishness of this story and its main protagonists, and the antagonism between the ordinary people and the ruling elite. There are various references to crucified wannabe messiahs or defeated zealots and Herod worries about the threat posed by his numerous opponents.

    Most strikingly there is a good deal of effort to portray Mary and Joseph as a typical, first-century, Jewish couple. The first scene featuring Mary and Joseph has her carrying a menorah candlestick and Joseph climbs onto a flat roof. Mary's uncle wears Jewish skull cap and shawl and discusses the law and when the two become betrothed it's clear that even if the customs displayed are not necessarily accurate, the filmmakers are certainly trying. Elsewhere they emphasise that Mary's parents have expectations for her marriage that are different from their audience. Mary's mother had been hoping she might marry "a prince". Furthermore, Joseph is considered too old for Mary - even though age gap is not particularly huge. (At the time of release Shea was 29 compared to Stowe's 20).

    Not dissimilarly, whilst Joseph and Mary are apparently in love before their betrothal, this is meant to be a secret and she frets about the two of them being seen talking and him giving her gifts. Yet at the same time the holy couple also defy the conventions of their day, and perhaps also our own. Joseph, for example, is expecting a messiah whose deliverance from Rome will not be in the style of the zealots. Even more striking in this respect is when Mary tends to the needs of a man being crucified, climbing a ladder to stroke his face. It's an act of both compassion and defiance, suggesting both Mary's love and her strength.

    All of this happens in the first half of the film, allowing it to fully develop the characters of Mary and Joseph before wading in to the biblical material. The annunciation doesn't occur until 40 minutes in to the film, not far off halfway. When it does come there is no angel, no disembodied voice, indeed there is not even a bright shining light. Mary is on her own by a remote-ish river and we see her face several times in extreme close-up. We also see a few shots taken from a low angle with Mary's face obstructing the sun and hear a suitably "oooh-ing" choir. Having heard, and responded to, God's vision, Mary lies down and goes to sleep. It's Joseph who wakes her and she recounts what happened as if recounting a dream. Indeed, that is what Joseph takes it to be. The low-angled shot is repeated later in the film when Joseph gets his own moment of revelation.

    The ambiguity surrounding the annunciation scene is absent however from the scenes where Mary visits Elizabeth and Zachariah. Mary is already aware of the unusual nature of Elizabeth's pregnancy. She even refers to it when trying to convince Joseph her experience was more than a dream. But the usual moments of Elizabeth;s unborn child jumping in the womb is still present, as are brief snippets of their conversation from Luke's Gospel. Additionally, as per the traditional story Zechariah's is  unable to speak, something Elizabeth jokes about in a line reminiscent of this year's The Star ("Sometimes I think it's improvement").

    All of these typical scenes are accompanied by the rather odd sub-plot involving three of Herod's advisors, Diomedes, Nestor and Flavius. Having taken it upon themselves to investigate the rumours of a coming messiah they tour round Judea meeting Joseph in one location, the wise men in another, and conveniently passing through the shepherds' field just as the angel is appearing. Spurious sub-plots are not uncommon in biblical films, but the way this one gradually increases it's focus onto Rhys-Davies and his colleagues seems particularly strange.

    Two moments stand out in this respect. The first is a weird conversation with the magi about the potential risk from Herod. Worst of all however is the climax of the film which sees neither shepherds or wise men making it on time, but does show Diomedes, Nestor and Flavius arriving in time not only be the first to witness the new king, but also to tip-off his father Joseph than the bright star that led them to the stable might be noticeable enough to also draw Herod's attention to it. Ordinarily this might not seem so very strange - the parallelism between these Roman wise men and the ones from the East might even work under other circumstances - but this is how the film ends.

    So whilst I and many others think of this version of the Nativity as the Madeleine Stowe one, in the end she is nudged to the edge of the stage by her co-stars. It would be almost ten years before her breakthrough in Stakeout and fifteen before her acclaimed performances in Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Short Cuts (1993). For his part, Shea eventually went on to star in another film about someone from another world coming to earth as a baby as  Lex Luthor in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997).

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