January 20th 2007

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Bushfire crisis: a state of denial

AUSTRALIAN CONSTITUTION: High Court strikes blow against states' rights

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Kevin Rudd - a more formidable Opposition leader?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Government's challenges over AWB-Iraq saga

QUARANTINE: Government to permit NZ apples into Australia

SCHOOLS: Trojan horse in Classical Studies curriculum

STRAWS IN THE WIND: South Pacific blues / Diamonds are an African's worst friend / Modern Madama Melbas / Putin's gambit / The Balibo Five and all that

FILM CLASSIFICATION: Australia's pornography industry suffers setback

ABORTION: Suffering in silence no more

CINEMA: Faithful re-telling of the Christmas story

Pope's back-flip on Turkey (letter)

Lack of Darfur coverage (letter)

Discarding safeguards to pursue human cloning (letter)

BOOKS: GENOCIDE: A History, by William D. Rubinstein


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Faithful re-telling of the Christmas story

by Damien Wyld

News Weekly, January 20, 2007
The newly released The Nativity Story skillfully relates the events leading up to, and including, the birth of Christ. Film reviewed by Damian Wyld.
The Nativity Story

As Christmas draws near, it is comforting to know that the true meaning of the season has not yet been drowned out by ever-increasing commercialism. The new film, The Nativity Story, skilfully relates the events leading up to, and including, the birth of Christ.

In a first, the world premiere of The Nativity Story was held in the Vatican on November 26 in front of an audience of more than 7,000. Since then, it has been released worldwide in the weeks leading up to December 25.

The filming process is an epic tale in itself. The modernity of Nazareth and the surrounding Israeli countryside (and possibly security concerns?) meant that another site needed to be found.

Matera, a small town in southern Italy, turned out to be perfect. It was featured in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and was painstakingly turned into the Nazareth of ancient times, complete with cast members trained to use contemporary methods of baking, milking, sowing seed and so on.

Herod's palace

A great deal of the movie was filmed in Morocco, which provided an abundance of suitable sites, not to mention existing sets which could readily be transformed into Herod's palace and the Temple.

The local landscape easily convinces viewers that they are looking at famous historical locations associated with the story, be it Zachary and Elizabeth's village; the country through which Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem; or the Mesopotamian markets visited by the approaching Magi. The searing Sahara Desert was even used for the Magis’ journey and the Holy Family's flight into Egypt.

The film's opening is unusual in that it commences with King Herod and his son Antipas discussing the mass-acre of the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem. Not since Sir Peter Ustinov's tantrum-throwing performance has an actor stamped his mark on Herod so convincingly as Northern Irishman Ciarán Hinds. An accomplished Shakespearean actor, Hinds brings the sense of ruthlessness required to a man who can order a massacre of children and remind his son that several of his own ambitious siblings are "gone".

Mary is played by teenage New Zealand actress Keisha Castle-Hughes. Castle-Hughes, whose credits already include the Academy Award-nominated Whale Rider and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, is well cast as the young girl from Nazareth destined to be the mother of Christ.

Opposite her is Guatemalan-born actor Oscar Isaac as Joseph. Despite his relatively few film roles, Isaac is excellent as the kindly man who stands by his wife and makes his own sacrifices during this great story (right down to secretly giving his food to the donkey to keep it strong on the road to Bethlehem).

Also worthy of note are Nadim Sawalha, Eriq Ebouaney and Stefan Kalipha, who play Melchior, Balthasar and Gaspar respectively. As relatively little is known of the wise men, artistic licence is employed to fill the gap and these actors have risen to the task. At times they provide the comic relief, with the hesitant Gaspar eventually joining his colleagues en route with a remark that they would get lost without him.

Only a few minor errors can be found in the storyline, namely that both mother and child cry in pain at birth, and also that the Magi arrive at Christmas, rather than the twelfth night, the feast of the Epiphany. Mary's lack of objection to a palm-reader grabbing her hand in Jerusalem also raises an eyebrow.

That having been said, the research that has gone into the film is obvious, be it the faithful re-creation of the Temple - complete with priests’ vestments and rituals - or something so seemingly simple as the actual names of the Magi, the wise men of the east. The names of Melchior, Balthasar and Gaspar (and even the fact that there were three wise men - or that Balthasar was black) are not to be found in scripture, but in sacred tradition.

Some were no doubt wondering whether the Nativity would receive similar treatment to the Passion in Gibson's film, namely a graphic and detailed focus on a particular aspect of the life of Christ. Whether it has received the same treatment is a matter for viewers to decide. Both were filmed with relative faithfulness to scripture and tradition, although Gibson also drew on the revelations of German mystic, Anne Catherine Emmerich.

In any event, The Nativity Story provides a wonderful balance to The Passion, placing the joyful alongside the sorrowful. Parents should be mindful of the limited but obvious violence in the story; but for older children this film has the potential to convey the timeless reason for Christmas: the Nativity.

Prompting joy, tears and laughter, this film deserves great success. There should be more family films like it.

- Film reviewed for News Weekly by Damian Wyld.

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