Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Nativity Story: The Review's Up

My review of The Nativity Story is now up on the SBL Forum. If you read my earlier, initial thoughts here, you will recognise some of it, but it's substantially revised and I have added a lot:

The Nativity Story: A Review
Mark Goodacre
SBL Forum, December 2006

Christmas TV on Bible Films

Matt Page has usefully gathered together details of Christmas Bible Related Films and Programmes on UK TV. I have already commented on The Secret Family of Jesus and the Daily Mayo podcast connected with it. The one I am particularly looking forward to is the following:

The Secret Life of Brian
1st Jan 8:00 pm
Channel 4 are devoting an entire evening to the Pythons. The evening kicks off with this documentary looking at the controversy surrounding the film. I hope they show the complete footage of the TV debate between two of the Python's and a bishop and another religious representative. I don't think it will, but hopefully there will be some interesting footage that I've not seen before.
I agree on that -- we tend to get the same tantalizing clip each time. Malcolm Muggeridge is the other chap Matt is talking about here; I don't recall which bishop it was. The Not the Nine O'Clock News Parody of the exchange, though, was genius (General Synod's "Life of Christ").

Update (13.44): David Mackinder informs me that the bishop in question was Mervyn Stockwood.

Bill Peterson

I was sorry to hear this morning of the death of Bill Peterson (via Evangelical Textual Criticism, via Hugoye). I was lucky to meet Bill on a couple of occasions through the textual-criticism folks at Birmingham, and I once had a happy meal with him at the SNTS in Birmingham in 1997. A nice man as well as a fine scholar; he will be greatly missed.

Christmas break

It's almost time for the NTGateway blog to take its traditional Christmas break. This may be my last post for a little. My blogging machine won't be travelling with us to England, so I look forward to seeing you in the new year. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Secret Family of Jesus: Channel 4 Documentary

It turns out that this year's religious documentary offering from Channel 4 on Christmas day is a piece exploring Jesus' family. From Channel 4's website:

The Secret Family of Jesus
25 December at 8pm
Did Jesus have a real human family? If so, why were they airbrushed from history and excised from the bible? Robert Beckford tells the story of the people who shared his bloodline.
Robert is a former colleague of mine at the University of Birmingham and his profile as a film-maker has risen hugely in the last few years. In fact, this is one of two documentaries he is involved with this Christmas. He discussed them both on today's Simon Mayo on FiveLive and was his usual, lively self. Listen again to the interview (streamed), or download it as a podcast -- it is today's Daily Mayo item. I'll be interested to see who is involved with The Secret Family of Jesus. Not me. I once enjoyed taking part in one of these experiences, Who Wrote the Bible?, on Christmas Day 2004, having filmed my section in Rome a couple of months earlier. This year, at least I won't have to inflict earnest religious content on my family on Christmas day, though I suppose we have the option of going for a smorgasbord of Some Like it Hot on Channel 4 at 4.35pm, followed by the new Doctor Who on BBC1 at 7pm, followed by Beckford at 8pm. Actually, we'll probably stick with Marilyn Monroe and David Tennant and video Dr Beckford. Sorry, Robert.

E. P. Sanders on the Uniqueness of Jesus' Teaching

Rob Bradshaw continues his fantastic work on of making available a huge range of on-line articles and lectures. The latest is my favourite so far:

E. P. Sanders, "The Question of Uniqueness in the Teaching of Jesus" (London: University of London, 1990)
The Ethel M. Wood Lecture 15 February 1990

Just to whet your appetite, here is one excerpt:
Selective reading combines with confessional interest to produce claims of uniqueness.

People who read more widely than others, such as Davies, make fewer claims of uniqueness and put them more appropriately: this would have struck the hearers as fresh. Occasionally, however, he too claims uniqueness (for example, by ignoring Lev. 19.34), and it will always turn out that he should have read one more passage.

If we removed confessional interest entirely, we would find people making no stronger claims than ‘unparalleled as far as I know’. After all, what percentage of the total wisdom of the world is available to even the most diligent reader? The pronouncement that something is ‘unique’, as I said at the outset, is among other things a claim to omniscience: I know everything, and there are no parallels. This is an extremely unscholarly attitude. The more one studies, the less one should hold it.
Sanders was (and is) something of a hero of mine, and this article is Sanders at his best.

Third annual Ralphies

Over on Ralph the Sacred River, Ed Cook has announced the Third Annual Ralphies, the little bit of annual indulgence among bibliobloggers to go outside of Biblical Studies and blog their "best ofs" of the year. (See mine for 2004 and 2005). This year Ed is doing this as a series. I am keeping mine under one post title so as not to increase the self-indulgence, but I'll blog them in the order in which Ed presents the series, so will update this post at the appropriate times. My campaign of the last couple of years to expand the categories to include best gig, best TV programme, best radio programme and best sporting event seem to be bearing fruit -- best TV programme has been added already. But enough of the preliminaries. Here are my initial entries, following Ed's lead:

Song of the year: Murray Gold's Song for Ten, performed by Neil Hannon. This is a geeky choice, I know, but it made an instant impact on me in last year's Doctor Who Christmas episode, "Christmas Invasion", as David Tennant looks out his (10th doctor)'s outfit. It qualifies as 2006 because the track was only recently released, on Murray Gold, Doctor Who, December 2006.

Honourable mention: The Killers, Read My Mind.

Album of the year: The Killers, Sam's Town. (There was no album by The Fall this year, sadly).

Honourable mention: Arctic Monkeys, Whatever People Say I am, That's What I'm Not

Gig of the year: Franz Ferdinand at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke University, 7 April. It was a particular thrill to be able to get to see one of my favourite British bands out here in North Carolina. (See Viola's blog post on).

Honourable mention: The Wedding Present, Cat's Cradle, Carrboro, March. Same comment as previous. (See Viola's blog post on).

Film of the year: Casino Royale is the only one that made a real impact on me this year, successfully rebooting the Bond franchise, even if it's not quite as great as some people think. Too much of Daniel Craig pouting for my liking. I probably didn't watch enough films this year, so my choice here is uninformed. Honourable mention: Inside Man.

TV programme of the year: Doctor Who, of course! Last year saw a brilliant return for the series after an absence of many years, and it came back transformed, superbly conceived by Russell T. Davies, one of the great contemporary British screen-writers. The second season, starring David Tennant as the tenth doctor, and Billie Piper again as his assistant, fully met our expectations. It was wonderful. Now we await the Christmas day episode co-starring Catherine Tate and the third series in the Spring.

Honourable mention (and a close second): Torchwood, the superb adult-oriented gritty spin-off from Doctor Who, currently airing in the UK on BBC3 and BBC2, created by Russell T. Davies. Some are even saying that they prefer it to Doctor Who.

TV comedy of the year: Extras, the second season of Ricky Gervais's brilliant sitcom. Honourable mentions: Lead Balloon, Catherine Tate.

Other honourable mentions: although nothing is quite up to the standard of the best British TV over here, Heroes is good so far and well worth watching. Battlestar Galactica is still worth watching too.

Radio programme of the year: The Making of Memory -- superb Radio 4 documentary series, part of their Memory Experience series of programmes.

Honourable mentions: I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue: funny as ever. There has been so much fantastic radio this year and the perennials keep the world turning around for me, Today, Test Match Special, Simon Mayo, Start the Week. I catch most of these via the BBC Download and Podcast Trial, one of the major changes to my life in 2006. The availability of so much good Radio 4 and Five Live radio via download has been a godsend. Speaking of which, how about a new category?

Podcast of the year: To concentrate on podcasts available outside of the BBC radio programmes above, the top was Baddiel and Skinner's World Cup Podcast -- made me laugh out loud all the way through the World Cup, and cheered me up when we lost to Portugal. Honourable mention: Ricky Gervais on The Guardian in February -- pretty enjoyable.

Sporting event of the year: well it's certainly not the Ashes this year! (American readers: The Ashes is the name for the most famous cricketing rivalry of all, England and Australian. After winning the Ashes back in the summer of 2005, we have just lost them again in Australia). The Sporting event has to be the World Cup, in spite of England's less than brilliant performance. Viola and I wrote a lot about our first experience of The World Cup in America in The Americanization of Emily.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Inquiry

Over on Filmchat, Petter Chattaway has news about an interesting new film called The Inquiry:
The new film, which premieres December 28 at the Capri Hollywood Film Festival in Italy, is a remake of a 1986 film about a Roman agent who is sent to Palestine to investigate rumours concerning a Jewish prophet who came back from the dead.
The film is directed by Giulio Base. Of particular interest is that Hristo Shopov will reprise his role as Pontius Pilate, after playing the part in The Passion of the Christ (dir. Mel Gibson, 2004). Another very interesting bit of casting is Max Von Sydow, Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told, as Tiberius. There is a trailer available. There is also an IMDb page on The Inquiry.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Bernard Orchard: Obituaries

The death of Dom. Bernard Orchard was reported in Hypotyposeis last week, following on from a note on Synoptic-L from Peter Head pointing to The Times Obituary of 5 December. I met Dom Orchard once, at the SNTS Meeting in Birmingham in 1997. Sadly, I didn't get a chance to attend his short paper at that meeting because I was run off my feet with organizing things, and our second daughter had just been born.

There is also a full obituary in The Independent from 6 December, written by Hugh O'Shaughnessy:

Dom Bernard Orchard
Monk and twice headmaster who transformed Ealing Priory School into the modern St Benedict's
Orchard, by nature a conservative and uncomfortable with some of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, devoted the rest of his life at the abbey to scriptural scholarship which allowed him to continue expressing forthright views with passion, even combativeness. For instance, defending the traditional teaching that St Matthew's gospel antedated St Mark's, in the US Catholic magazine This Rock in 1996 he commented with characteristic tartness,
It has been unfortunate that the combination of an exhilarating freedom to pursue historical criticism with church approval and the reassuring support of the prestigious faculties of the German and American universities has convinced the Markan Priorists that they cannot be wrong.
The Old Priorian Association has a PDF obituary here:

R.I.P. John Bernard Orchard

The Telegraph obituary of 8 December is here:

Dom Bernard Orchard
. . . . His scholarly work was not deeply original, and his judgment was sometimes questioned. But he had a gift for organising, stimulating and coordinating scholars to produce research of lasting value. As chairman of the Catholic Biblical Association of Great Britain he ruled with headmasterly severity for decades.

Orchard edited A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (1953), the first one-volume Catholic commentary since the opening out of biblical studies after Pope Pius XII's encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu. With Fr Reginald Fuller, he set about providing Catholics with an accurate modern translation of the Bible. They obtained the copyright holders' permission to adapt and amend the American Revised Standard Version, and produced an edition that Catholics could use in the liturgy and biblical studies, though it took 10 years before the RSV-Catholic Edition was published with an imprimatur . . . .

. . . . During six years in Rome he became the founder and chairman of the World Catholic Federation for the Biblical Apostolate, and acted as spiritual director of the Beda College. He published his Synopsis of the Four Gospels, in English and Greek editions. With Professor William Farmer of Dallas and Professor TRW Longstaff he wrote papers and inspired international conferences aimed at reviving the 18th-century theory that the first synoptic gospel to be written was Matthew, followed by Luke and finally Mark.

At one stage no biblical conference in the British Isles seemed complete without this tall, strong, silver-haired figure, who also lectured on his theory so widely abroad that some wondered if he did not like being in his monastery. But he remained true to his community, and from 1981 was the titular cathedral prior of Canterbury . . . .

Blogs various

Today seems to be a bit of a catching-up day on the blog, so here are a few things I've wanted to mention for a while. I didn't get time to mention Loren Rosson's interview as Biblioblogger of the Month a couple of weeks ago. I've added a couple of new blogs to my blogroll (and sent others to limbo), including Deirdre Good's On not being a sausage, Neil Godfrey's Vridar and Doug Chaplin's Fool's Footsteps.

The Nativity Story: Chattaway's take

Peter Chattaway's articles and reviews are always well worth reading, especially when it comes to Bible films. I wanted to wait to read his review of The Nativity Story until I had written my own and with mine finished yesterday (a new one, based on my earlier blog post, to be published soon), I took the opportunity to read his today. It is on Christianity Today Movies:

The Nativity Story
Peter T. Chattaway

For me, he gets it about right, and he articulates something very well that had been worrying me:
There is also a tension of sorts in Mike Rich's screenplay, which oscillates between the need to be faithful to the biblical text, on the one hand, and the freedom to create dramatically compelling characters and scenes, on the other. While Rich trims out some of the dialogue that appears in the Bible, the parts that he keeps are presented almost exactly as written, yet these sections of the film—especially the Annunciation and the restoration of speech to Zechariah—feel rushed and anticlimactic, and are never quite woven into the rest of the drama. Compare the first scene between Mary and Elizabeth, which is straight out of the Gospel of Luke (minus the Magnificat), with their later conversations; it's a little like watching Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, in which the heroes use modern English until they wander into a scene from Hamlet and start talking all Shakespearean.
This is exactly right. I thought the worst parts of the film were when they were quoting scripture -- each time they went straight into reading-in-church mode, a shame given the film's strengths, e.g. in allowing us to listen in to Mary's thoughts.

Neotestamentica 40.1 (2006)

Thanks to Holger Szesnat for the note that abstracts, book reviews, and two sample articles (D. E. Aune and F. P. Viljoen) of the latest Neotestamentica are now available on-line:

Neotestamentica 40.1 (2006)

The on-line full text pieces are:

David E.Aune, "The Apocalypse of John and Palestinian Jewish Apocalyptic"

Francois P. Viljoen, "Jesus’ Teaching on the Torah in the Sermon on the Mount"

Pick of the day: A Guide to Grading Exams

If I had a "pick of the day" feature on the NTGateway blog, this would be today's, from the Concurring Opinions blog by Daniel Solove (with thanks to Feeble Mindings for the tip)

A Guide to Grading Exams

There is some particularly helpful advice on that vexed issue of how to decide on those borderline A-/B+ decisions.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Tens of thousands of spam

Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam. Eventually I got fed up of it. 20,000 spam messages in the last 48 hours, and this is getting pretty common. I use gmail, which has an excellent spam filter, so I only get to see a fraction of these that bleed through to my inbox, but a fraction of 10,000 a day is still too much. I decided to take some action. The vast majority of my spam comes from the address. Spam robots simply affix any automated name to, and my ISP sends it all to me. So I have discontinued the use of as my blog email address, and have diverted all mail to another address which I will only occasionally check. Please send any future blog-related emails to my Duke address (goodacre at duke dot edu).

Why aren't there more good plays about Jesus?

Today's Guardian has an interesting article by a playwright who wants to know why there are so few good plays about Jesus:

The greatest story never told
A virgin birth, great parts for everyone and a happy ending ... so why aren't there more good plays about Jesus? Mark Ravenhill reports
. . . .Given that most of our leading playwrights, directors and actors have at some point appeared in a Nativity play during their formative years, it's surprising more of them haven't been drawn to tell the story of the Nativity, or other aspects of the life of Christ, in their adult work . . .

. . . . The absence of the story of Christ from the stage is not a new phenomenon. In medieval England we had the Mystery Plays, most famously in York and Coventry - epic Biblical cycles performed by amateurs on wagons passing through the city. But with the dissolution of the monasteries and the split from Rome, stagings of Biblical events became heretical. It wasn't until the 20th century that these plays were restaged, first by amateur groups, and then in a celebrated production by Bill Bryden at the National Theatre. The success of Bryden's production was in part due to his setting of the plays in a Northern working-class culture, just as it was under attack from the Thatcher government.
It's a good article, though some alarm bells begin ringing here:
Dennis Potter called his play about the crucifixion, written for television and later staged by the RSC with Joseph Fiennes as Christ, "Son of Man" - instantly loading it by denying Jesus his semi-divinity.
Semi-divinity? Could this be another example of that occasional media heresy that Jesus was a half-man, half-god? Apparently it is:
Perhaps the representation of Jesus on stage is always going to be problematic. If you are a believer, he is the son of God and therefore half human and half divine. How does an actor represent the divine?
That aside, though, well worth a read.

Pick of the day: Sigma

If I had a "pick of the day" feature, this would be today's, on Laudator Temporis Acti:


Read about sigma, final sigma, lunate sigma and the lipogram.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Paul Quiz

Beliefnet has a quiz on Paul out today:

Christianity Quiz: All About Paul

My Paul class handed in their final assignments today, but you don't need to have spent much time studying Paul to get ten out of ten on this one.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Microsoft Book Search

Thanks to Jim West for news of this new resources:

Live Search Books

Like Google Books, it has plenty of public domain books in full view downloads available. I've not had a lot of time to play with it yet, but time enough to find the following, which is not available on Google Books:

J. C. Hawkins, Horae Synopticae (Oxford: Clarendon, 1899)

The quality of the scans seems very good, and the site seems pretty easy to use. So thumbs up so far, and I am looking forward to searching for more.

Update (Tuesday, 10.05): Thanks to Ken Olson for pointing out that this is in fact the first edition of 1899 (see comments), so I've adjusted above.

Poirier vs. Tabor

Jack Poirier has a review of James Tabor's Jesus Dynasty online at the Jerusalem Perspective website:

Book Review: James Tabor’s The Jesus Dynasty
by Jack Poirier

And James Tabor has a response on his blog:

The James Ossuary and Pantera (Again!)

Update (Thursday, 15.36): Thanks to Jack Poirier (in comments to this post) for pointing out that he now has a response to Tabor published in the same context above, after a reproduction of Tabor's blog post.

St Paul's sarcophagus

Back in February 2005, stories about the discovery of Paul's tomb began to circulate in the media (see Archaeologists discover Paul's tomb) and they resurfaced recently, e.g. in USA Today (via Paleojudaica). The newer reports point to a press conference at the Vatican today, and reports of this are now becoming available, for example here in IOL:

Vatican may open Saint's tomb
By Philip Pullella
Vatican City - The Vatican said on Monday it was studying the possibility of opening a thick marble sarcophagus believed to contain the remains of the 1st century apostle St Paul to study its contents.

The prospect was raised at a news conference at which Vatican officials unveiled the results of an archaeological dig which has made part of the sarcophagus in Rome's Basilica of St Paul's Outside the Walls visible to pilgrims.

"We tried to X-ray it to see what was inside but the stone was too thick," said Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, archpriest of the basilica on Rome's outskirts . . . .

. . . . Montezemolo belittled some media reports that the apostle's tomb had only now been discovered.

"There has been no doubt for the past 20 centuries that the tomb is there. It was variously visible and not visible in times past and then it was covered up. We made an opening (in the basilica floor) to make it visible at least in part," he said . . . .
The Vatican news service has a full report in Italian here:


The Nativity Story: What the Scholars Say

I have seen only a handful of reviews from New Testament scholars on The Nativity Story. Given the plethora of reviews they put out on The Passion of the Christ, this is a disappointment if not a surprise. It seems that these days, however much we might like to think that we are not influenced by the media frenzy on such things, it was the public thirst for comment on The Passion that was driving all that scholarly interest and which in part explains the vituperative tone of so many of the reviews.

The scholarly interest is not completely lacking, though, and so far, these are the reviews I have found from New Testament scholars:

Waiting for the Magnificat
Scot McKnight, Relevant Magazine
McKnight enjoys the film, sometimes feels he was there in the first century, falls in love with Joseph but not Mary and wishes for more of the Magnificat.
The Nativity-- The Birth of a Classic?
Ben Witherington (blog)
He thinks it's "not only not bad . . . actually pretty good". Unlike McKnight, he likes the portrait of Mary. He is not so keen on the CGI Jerusalem, or shepherds and magi at the manger at the same time, but otherwise it is thumbs up.
Witherington's review reveals that Darrell Bock was one of those consulted for the film and Bock himself has some brief reflections. (We'd love to see more!).

Three million visits today

At some point today, the NT Gateway should receive its three millionth visitor. As I write it is standing at 2,999,482 visits in 8,046,448 page views (statistics). Bear in mind that these figures include The New Testament Gateway as a whole (but not other sites like Case Against Q or Aseneth).

Update: the three million mark was reached earlier this afternoon, I'm not sure precisely when. Since my stats software is not as sophisticated as some people have, I am afraid I am not able to offer a free Mars Bar for the three millionth visitor, but thanks for the support anyway.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Nativity Story Quiz

Beliefnet asks:

How Well Do You Know the Nativity Story?

Some of the questions are a bit dubious, but it's worth doing so that you can enjoy some of the wacky multiple choice answers. If you give them the answers you think they want, it's quite easy to get fourteen out of fourteen. The quiz is up there as part of its Nativity Story movie coverage:

The Nativity Story 2006

The site includes clips, review, interviews and multimedia feature.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Nativity Story: My Review (continued)

The Nativity Story was released in the US last Friday, 1 December, and my first viewing of the film was on Saturday 2nd. Here follows my review.

One of the pleasures for me was that this was the first Bible film I have seen at the cinema with the whole family. My wife would not go to see The Passion of the Christ and I wouldn't dream, of course, of taking the children to that. And it was great to be sitting with the kids either side of me while we watched The Nativity Story, a film that is pitched about right to the family "PG" audience. The violence of the Slaughter of the Innocents is not gory, and is relatively short-lived. The two birth scenes (Elizabeth's and Mary's) are not graphic and again are relatively short-lived. At times I wondered whether it might be sufficiently compelling for the younger audience, but apparently it was. My nine year old had to ask a couple of times "What's going on?" but only a couple of times, and towards the beginning. For the kids, as well as for the faithful, there are enough of the traditional, familiar story markers to reassure everyone that the important bases are covered, Herod, wise men, star, shepherds, no room at the inn, but there are enough imaginative fresh elements weaved into the traditional narrative to keep the interest up.

I am very easily pleased when it comes to Bible films, especially seeing them in the cinema. So much of my access to Jesus films has been via television, video and DVD, that it is always a thrill to catch one on release in the cinema. No doubt my views on this one will change and mature in time, especially with future viewings, and my initial viewing is strongly influenced by the thrill of seeing it in the cinema, where I will return shortly for my next viewing. So when I say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of watching this film, bear in mind that context.

Not surprisingly, the basis for the story is Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2, and the sources are harmonized pretty successfully, with Luke perhaps just getting the edge. Zechariah and Elizabeth, from Luke, are major minor characters, and Herod and the magi, from Matthew, are ever-present. As expected, the plot focuses on Luke's Nazareth to Bethlehem journey, but it is framed by the Slaughter of the Innocents from Matthew, opening with this, and then presenting the remainder of the film as a flash-back beginning "One year earlier". Very little is omitted from Luke 1.5--2.19, but nothing is utilized from Luke 2.20-51, so there is nothing after the shepherds -- no temple, circumcision, Simeon or Anna. This is necessitated by the turn to Matthew after the birth, with the flight to Egypt and slaughter of the innocents, stories that make it difficult to incorporate a trip to Jerusalem, towards Herod, from whom they are fleeing in Matthew. Little is omitted from Matthew's shorter account, but there is no concession to Mary and Joseph's Bethlehem "house" in Matthew 2.11. It's Luke's (implied) stable / cave and then the flight to Egypt at the end of the film.

I didn't spot any influence from non-canonical gospels at all. Mary's parents were not named in the body of the film, for example, though they were credited as Joaquim and Anna (as in Protevangelium of James). And Joseph was a young man with no children, again in contrast to the Protevangelium, where he is a widow with sons.

Structurally, the one major non-Biblical addition to the narrative was a visit to Jerusalem en route from Nazareth to Jerusalem. Luke 2.4 has Mary and Joseph travelling from Nazareth to Bethlehem whereas Matthew has them already located in Bethlehem. But the addition of Jerusalem here makes good narrative sense. Not only is it historically plausible that those who travelled from Galilee, to Bethlehem, would go via Jerusalem (e.g. take a look at a map of first century Palestine with Roman Road System), but also it allows the film to depict Joseph and Mary coming across Herod's path without quite meeting him, seeing the Temple and thinking about the future. It also provides the opportunity for one of the best shots of the entire film, as Joseph and Mary are on the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, with the city beautifully standing proud in the background, with all the glories of CGI at its best.

The locations used are pretty familiar in Bible and ancient world films. Matera in Italy was the location for The Gospel According to St Matthew (dir. Pasolini, 1964) and The Passion of the Christ (dir. Gibson, 2004). And Ouarzazate has been used for many films and TV specials (see previous comments here), including the BBC's St Paul (2003), when I travelled to Ouarzazate with Philip Esler. It's actually pretty recognizable, and there were a few moments during The Nativity Story where I found myself saying, "I've been there!". The Moroccan company used for extras in these scenes, Dune Films, is the same.

Another BBC Documentary, called The Virgin Mary (dir. David McNab, 2002), also filmed in Ouarzazate, may have influenced The Nativity Story at odd points. When Elizabeth gives birth to John in The Nativity Story, the scene bears an uncanny resemblance to Mary's giving birth to Jesus in The Virgin Mary, especially the use of the rope dangling from the ceiling. I could not help seeing an echo of the dramatization of Mary's relationship with a Roman soldier from the same documentary too. There is a moment when Roman soldiers gallop through Nazareth and one of them stops and looks at Mary, who stares back. Perhaps there is nothing in it. It's just a moment, just a look, but it evoked for me that other, scandalous story that has only ever been dramatized, to my knowledge, in The Virgin Mary.

There were a few inevitable historical oddities and anachronisms of the kind that could have been avoided if they had talked to more scholars (I only spotted William Fulco, S.J., also used in The Passion of the Christ, in the credits). Zechariah, for example, is pictured sitting writing at a rather mediaeval looking desk. As far as we can tell, the ancients did not use desks; the anachronism here is like depicting Robin Hood using a laptop computer. Nor is it plausible that Roman troops would have been spotted galloping through Nazareth in 6-4 BCE bearing a standard in order to enforce taxation. There was a standard Jesus film cliché too, as Joseph makes a disparaging comment on the commercialism of the Jerusalem temple, so prefiguring an old-fashioned reading of Jesus' so-called Temple cleansing. I would have preferred to have seen Joseph and Mary awed and inspired by the Temple.

The low points of the film, though, were the botched attempts to depict the angelic appearances to key characters. Films have always struggled with this. How can one depict in film a angelic appearance, a divine vision, and make it plausible? The Miracle Maker (dir. Hayes and Sokolov, 2000) used traditional animation for "supernatural" events over against its claymation for the rest, and it works. Jesus of Nazareth (dir. Zeffirelli, 1977), less successfully, has Mary responding and speaking to a window during the annunciation. But The Nativity Story is worse. Little imagination has gone into the major angelic scenes. Mary meets Gabriel in Nazareth while going about her business outdoors, his angelic identity coded by his fuzzy-around-the edges focus. He reappears later in the film, standing on a hill-side and speaking to the old shepherd, his costume white but not gleaming. It's horrible. And no heavenly choir either. One gets the feeling that Catherine Hardwicke had a loss of nerve, a failure of imagination, or both. At other points, she is more than happy to go down a traditional, iconic, picture-book route. Here, given that there is no attempt to go for an every-day style human encounter, it might have been better if she'd gone for the full, gleaming robed glory of a picture-book angel. The attempt to take a middle path does not work.

On the other hand, Joseph's dream is handled very well, with the kind of imagination that one longs for in those other heavenly encounters. His dream, in which he sees people gathering to stone Mary for committing adultery, comes straight out of Jesus of Nazareth, which has the identical motif, filmed similarly. But it improves on Zeffirelli in a couple of ways. The viewer does not immediately realize that Joseph is dreaming because we see him out at work as the people gather to stone Mary. And whereas Jesus of Nazareth has the disembodied angel's voice interrupting the action, The Nativity Story has the angel appearing within the dream itself, emerging from the crowd to speak to Joseph. Joseph wakes up while the angel is still speaking (he's got about as far as "You will call his name Jesus").

On the whole, The Nativity Story is predictable; it is faithful to tradition; it ticks all the relevant boxes; but it has some real charm, a lot of warmth, some imagination, and it is just about pacey enough to keep the viewer's interest. I don't think it is destined to be a classic, but it is certainly not a clinker. There are moments when the film just goes through the motions, but these are compensated by many more moments when it has an interesting new angle on the old, old story. In the end, The Nativity Story makes an excellent account of itself because it does not try to be too ambitious. It knows what it is doing, presenting a warm-hearted retelling of the Nativity story without trying to re-invent the tradition. Don't expect too much, but don't be too cynical. Don't expect to be blown away, but don't prepare for disappointment.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Nativity Story reviews

On Bible Films, Matt Page has his review of The Nativity Story up; here's an excerpt:
Yet despite its uniqueness, it can't quite decide what kind of bible film it wants to be. The title suggests a mythic retelling, perhaps aimed at the family, yet the early scenes have a gritty, realistic feel to them. Later on though the film morphs into a sort of road movie as Mary and Joseph get acquainted and start to appreciate one another. Then it changes gear yet again once the holy couple reaches Bethlehem. The last remaining vestiges of realism are swiftly ditched and out comes a touch of the Christmas magic. The light from the star shines through a hole in the roof and makes the coldest and dampest of caves seem warm and lovely. Finally, the film ends with the new family fleeing from Herod, ending the film as if it's the close of part 1 of an action trilogy.
The whole review is here:

The Nativity Story Review

I am looking forward to going to see the film tomorrow. Meanwhile, it has a stinking 26% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, "a dull retelling of a well-worn tale". IMDb has it at 6.3 out of 10 so far.

For lots more, Pete Chattaway has gathered together his posts on The Nativity Story on FilmChat:

The Nativity Story Article Archive

The latest of these is on Canadian Christianity:

Nativity Story producers, writer look beyond the Christian "niche"
By Peter T. Chattaway

I don't think his review is out yet, nor is The Guardian's, where I always go for film, but it does have the following feature today:

The greatest teen drama ever told
Hannah Patterson

The film comes out today in the USA. In the UK, you have to wait until next Friday. (See release dates on IDMb).