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 Can someone tell me if a similarly outdated form of language is used in the Japanese?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.