Tuesday, December 18, 2007

マリア - The Nativity Story

The Nativity Story. It's a movie that I (Scot) didn't get a chance to see last year, since I was living in South Korea and it was in theaters for only two weeks. However, after a one-year delay, this movie is coming to Japan under a new name: Maria (マリア). You can see one of the promotional posters on the right, and you can visit the website, which includes a trailer, here:
I decided that I would take the opportunity to finally watch this movie. So this is my review of sorts, though I do talk a little bit about Christian media in general. Unfortunately, it's not a good review.

Let's start with the music, since that is my specialty. The soundtrack for this movie is based off of famous Christmas carols like "Silent Night", "What Child is This", and "O Little Town of Bethlehem". ["Carol of the Bells" even makes a surprise appearance.] However, for some unexplainable reason, all of the songs are sung in Latin. Why?! Every single one of the songs was written AFTER the Reformation, in either German or English. Maybe they were just trying to emulate the ethereal sound of the Lord of the Rings soundtracks, where the choruses were sung in one of the two forms of Elvish, both of which Tolkien based off of Latin. Either way, it gives the movie a decidedly Catholic flavor from the start, which could alienate some Japanese viewers.

While we're on the subject of languages, it should be noted that the whole movie is a mix of English and Aramaic. Basically, it works like this: whenever someone greets another person, says goodbye, or prays, it's in Aramaic. Not Hebrew. Again, why? It makes the priests look like they are chanting an incantation, rather than praying to God. I cannot vouch for the Japanese subtitles, since I didn't watch the Japanese version, but I'm assuming they left the Aramaic untranslated. I should also note that whenever the Lord speaks, he does so in King James English. Can someone tell me if a similarly outdated form of language is used in the Japanese?

Now we come to the writing and directing. This movie has two half-climaxes, but no real climax at all. The movie is supposedly centered around the night of Christ's birth, and yet it opens with a scene of Herod killing all of the young children in Bethlehem (which happened two years later). Then, when we finally get to that scene, which was set up from the beginning to be the climax, it is treated as an Epilogue or an afterthought. Along with that there are certain factual inaccuracies, such as the wisemen visiting Jesus on the night of his birth, not when he is two years old (as the Biblical account puts it). As far as directing goes, Catherine Hardwick tries to portray Mary as a character with angst and rebelliousness right below the surface, but then backsteps from that and always shows Mary making the perfect decision. What we get is a lot of sustained shots of Mary's face where she is supposedly thinking very deeply, but for all we know, she could just have indigestion; we don't know, because we are never let into her thoughts, and her decisions never carry any weight.

This writing and directing typefies what I see so often in Christian media. Biblical characters are introduced, but are never given development. We are supposed to automatically like them because they're from the Bible, but the writing/directing portrays nothing in them that allows us to empathize with them or struggle through the problem with them. They instead become moving icons, rather than real characters. [This gives the actors themselves nothing to work with, so I will not comment on their performances beyond saying one thing: it's dull. Really dull.] The far-reaching results of this are that people, children especially, are far more likely to identify themselves with, and form their ideas about the world from, characters they can relate to, like Harry Potter, Spiderman, Edward Elric (from Fullmetal Alchemist - 鋼の錬金術師), or, in extreme cases, Yagami Light (from Death Note - デスノット, a young man with a strong sense of justice who decides to cleanse the world of evil by supernaturally killing all of the evildoers). All of this instead of modeling themselves after the faith of Mary, the selfless giving of Joseph, or the radical government-toppling culture-renewing life-changing messages that Jesus gave. Why? Because those characters, and those messages, are never portrayed with the same amount of artistic flair or dramatic tension; we are simply told about the decisions these people made instead of being shown how they arrived at those decisions and the radical amounts of dying-to-self that it took.

So, should you see this movie, and should you recommend it to your Japanese friends? It's a tough call. One good thing about it is that it DOES visually represent the time and geographical periods very well. It's also a piece of Christian Media that is getting a somewhat mainstream release in Japan, which seems like an accomplishment that should be celebrated. Then there is always the issue where I feel like I am somehow betraying my faith by saying you shouldn't recommend it. However, in the end, I have to say "No." If someone is seriously looking into the faith, there is nothing in this movie that is going to help them through the process (though I'm not denying the possibility of the Holy Spirit using it), and if somebody is already a Christian, there is little here that adds to the original. I'd recommend just re-reading it.


Sarah said...

I saw the Nativy Story last year. It:s been a year, but personally I:m a little surprised by your review. It wasn:t the most stunning movie, but I enjoyed it. I think you hit on the reason that I like it, "the selfless giving of Joseph". I think that Joseph is a really powerful character in this story. No, we aren:t exposed to his deep thoughts and struggles. We don:t understand how he wrestles with events internally, but we do see the external actions that result from and internal determination. And I think we see it very potently.
While I have to agree that the director doesn:t give us much insight into the internal thoughts of hte characters, I don:t believe that that makes them flat characters. I think the character development is more subtle. It allows the viewers to relate to the characters, to insert our own thoughts into their struggles, to imagine how we would find internal motivations and justifications.
One other powerful thing that I believe this movie portrayed was Mary:s struggle. It seems to simple in the Bible, the angel comes, Mary recieves the angels message. But you see how Mary had to deal with the context of her situation, with other people, whispers, fear. Maybe it isn:t explicitly stated, but I think it isn:t difficult to imagine.
The beginning, with the slaughter of children, was probably nothing more than a cheap draw tactic, to get viewers who prefer sex or viloence, into a story that doesn:t really have great amounts of either. I:ll agree that the ending wasn:t great, the actual Christmas story was fairly brief and no, they didn:t stick around for two years for hte wise men, but would you expect them to? Historical accuracy is lacking other places as well, we three kings being an example. Can you demand everyone else have historical accuracy?
In conclusion of your post, you stated that "If someone is seriously looking into the faith, there is nothing in this movie that is going to help them through the process". I'm shocked by that statement. I wouldn personally would not go so far. I think that this movie is powerful in its own way.

Scot Eaton said...


Thanks for your comments. It's good to get another perspective on this story. I think that some individual elements of the production are good, namely the costuming and set designs, plus, as you mentioned, the portrayal of Joseph. I just didn't think that Joseph's good portrayal was enough to carry the poor portrayals of Mary, Mary's parents, Elizabeth, and the Wise Men.

In response to the historical accuracy, especially as regards the Wise Men, I understand their reason for making the number 3, and giving them the names Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, as that has been a long-standing tradition, specifically in Spanish culture. Because it wasn't mentioned in the Bible, I don't mind them adding those details.

That doesn't change the fact that I am bothered by changing the time of their arrival. The movie portays them to be scholars of the Jewish texts who read specific prophecies about the Messiah, and were expecting to find him. In reality, they were most likely Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia, as they didn't even know to go to Bethlehem until Herod's scribes told them. Changing this detail changes what I believe to be the entire purpose of the Wise Men: to show how God used natural revelation to let people know about Christ, even when they weren't anticipating Him. God would do this again at Jesus' death, where the rocks literally cried out (an earthquake) at the death of their Savior, and the sun refused to shine.

Your surprise about my last statement (there is nothing in this movie that will help [seekers] throught the process) was expected. However, before I wrote that, I went on to the IGN.com movie forums and the Rotten Tomatoes website (rottentomatoes.com) to see what non-Christians were saying about the movie. Here are some quotes:
"A stillborn drama that inspires yawns more than anything else."
"An effective pitch for Christianity as the dullest religion ever."
"Indeed, the movie lacks any kind of spiritual tingle."
"Upon leaving the theater, a colleague remarked that the story was much more powerful when Linus told it in A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) -- my sentiments exactly."
And by far the clearest statement:
"For those who are not pulled to this movie for its religious slant, there's no reason to go. There's nothing here for a serious movie-goer. Despite the sizeable budget, this is little more than a glossy Christmas tract."

In the end, only a few of the Christian moviegoers supported the movie, while some of the Christians and virtually all of the non-Christians were bored to tears by it. Check out some of the reviews and follow the link to the forums here:

Anonymous said...

I love this movie. It's the sound mix that drives me crazy. The music is too loud and the dialogue too soft and no matter what I try--it's just mixed this way. I think this movie is precious.