What I want from a Nativity film

I find most Bible films to be unsatisfying. Here’s what I would like to see in a Nativity film:

1. Authentic-looking actors. I realise that a film is by its very nature make believe, but any attempt to reproduce the biblical world has to look and sound right. One could plausibly film a modern version of the Nativity in northern Canada with an Inuit Joseph and Mary, but as soon as you make any effort to transport your viewers to 1st century Palestine, you have to achieve a certain standard of authenticity; casting whiter-than-white (or black, or Asian) actors just doesn’t look right. I have no idea what Mary looked like, but I’m willing to bet she didn’t look like a more demure version of an Anglo-American prom queen. A bit of dirt rubbed in her face won’t do either. This is a Holy Couple who look fairly authentic to me.

2. Be true to the Gospels but not slavishly so. I’m not interested in a revisionist Nativity, or at least not as part of my Christmas devotion, so please stick with the basic Matthew-Luke story. I don’t mind a harmonisation of the stories and it’s fine to go beyond the text a little bit: for example, the recent BBC Nativity did a really good job of exploring Joseph’s very plausible initial reluctance to accept Mary’s story (however, they broke wish #1 by casting extremely English-looking actors. Seriously, it was like Nazareth Abbey). But I would prefer we lost some of the later accretions: let’s not call the wise men Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, for example.

3. Get the language right. I personally loved the Aramaic of Mel Gibson’s The Passion and I have no problem reading subtitles (but The Passion broke wish #2 by adding the extra-biblical Anne Catherine Emmerich sadism). Needless to say, if you’re going to use ancient languages, pick the right ones. Modern Hebrew may sound cool to you, for example, but it will sound ridiculous to anyone who knows better. So, go ahead and use English but remember that the characters in the story spoke in a way that was normal to them — they did not speak in a “biblical” way. Thus, whilst the basic speeches reported by the Bible can be used and adapted where appropriate, there’s no need to have your characters speaking in KJV English. It doesn’t sound right and it gives the false impression of formality in a story that was experienced by people who did not know they would one day be characters in holy writ.

So, those are my three Christmas wishes for a Nativity film. So far they remain unfulfilled unless someone has a particular recommendation (I quite like the Catherine Hardwicke Nativity Story apart from the Christmas card ending and camp-y wise men subplot).

What do you think of the new LDS Bible films?


  1. Ronan, thanks for this — it’s a simple enough roadmap based on completely intuitive aesthetic priorities. Why does it seem so hard to accomplish this?

  2. I completely agree with all your points, and I’m glad someone else said it the way I wanted to. I saw the new LDS nativity clip from the Christmas Devotional and it just didn’t do it for me. Quite fairy tale-ish.

  3. Julie M. Smith says:

    Amen. I think the formal language and general cleanliness bother me more than anything else.

  4. Great thoughts, completely in agreement.

    “I personally loved the Aramaic of Mel Gibson’s The Passion” Ditto. We talked about it in one of my Aramaic classes, and I emailed Father William Fulco, who provided the Aramaic script for the film (and also taught Stephen Ricks.) He is unable to distribute the actual Aramaic script, but reminisced positively about Ricks.

  5. I would add a mild request for a little natural behavior … i.e., acting. The Bible videos I’ve seen mostly feel more like pageants than movies, filled with Significant Pauses and peppered with Dramatic Gazes. Actors stand and stare at departing figures rather than going about their business naturally. And when Mary alternates between the only two expressions she knows — Completely Neutral, and With Furrowed Brow (used for all moments of high drama, regardless of whether the emotion intended is awe, fear, curiosity, or puzzlement), I wonder whether Claymation might not have been a more expressive choice.

    Yeah, I know it’s easy to find fault … but we’ve come to expect more from the art than posed tableaux.

  6. Preach on, Ardis. And while we’re at it–how about a soundtrack less reliant on pianos, flutes and oboes?

  7. I agree on all counts, Ronan.

    (Even Mel, who gets points for trying so hard in his Passion of the Christ, made a glaring error by using Latin where the actual language used to communicate with locals would have been Greek.)

  8. Well, we LOVE Catherine Hardwicke’s Nativity Story, so much that we have watched it every Christmas Eve since it was released–first time in the theater, and every year after that on DVD. We laugh at/overlook/endure the “wisemen” portrayals (comic relief?) but very much enjoy the rest of it. I think I like it so much because Joseph and Mary’s relationship in the movie seems very much like what I’ve imagined it to be. Since we don’t have terribly much in the gospels to read about either one of them, all we CAN do is imagine most of it, so perhaps we each have our own ideas of how it all happened. I do agree that the actors in the movie, especially the main ones, were extremely well cast.

  9. My first reaction to the new video was “wow, nice production values” then I saw Mary and just felt totally deflated. Such a lost opportunity.

  10. I like the fact that the angel appears without a bunch of dramatic music, and that the clip ends without a huge musical flourish, just the sounds of the night and the animals.

  11. Also, excellent suggestions, Ronan,

  12. I really liked that when Mary travels to visit Elisabeth, you can tell she took the long way because you can hear the call of a Great Northern Owl in the background. Such a journey deserves a film in itself.

  13. I suppose, in my mood today, I see these as primarily archetypal figures, and the impact of the story ahistorical. I wouldn’t have minded an Asian Mary, or African, or whatever. I like the way the angel is handled – it strikes me as true to my experience in some difficult to specify way. And I like the way Mary’s prayer was handled. On the whole, it seems to me like a really good effort and a step forward.

  14. Julie M. Smith says:

    “I really liked that when Mary travels to visit Elisabeth, you can tell she took the long way because you can hear the call of a Great Northern Owl in the background.”


  15. >I like the way the angel is handled – it strikes me as true to my experience.

    Wow, you have experience of angels, TP?

  16. Hasn’t everyone? When I was a kid, I was told that Jesus was at Sacrament Meeting, only I couldn’t see him. I assume angels are all around. I certainly believe I have had any number of experiences with angels, some more remarkable than others.

  17. lds.org/general-conference/2008/10/the-ministry-of-angels

    “Usually such beings are not seen. Sometimes they are. But seen or unseen they are always near. Sometimes their assignments are very grand and have significance for the whole world. Sometimes the messages are more private. Occasionally the angelic purpose is to warn. But most often it is to comfort, to provide some form of merciful attention, guidance in difficult times. “

  18. Mostly, I don’t want mine to look like Simon Dewey paintings.

  19. My experience is anyone providing service, or delivering a message I very much need to hear, to either call me to repentance or comfort me is serving as an angel. And they tend to walk in, not fly or fade.

  20. Left Field says:

    Quite possibly, Mary and Joseph were excited to add a vagrant raptor to their life list.

  21. Blue-eyed Mary aside, I can’t figure out why the characters in the new Church-produced videos speak with British accents, although there’s the strong possibility that the historical Mary and Gabriel knew the KJV would eventually become the most inspired Bible translation in history and so adjusted their accents accordingly.

  22. I love the “Nativity Story” as well, and that’s our preferred Christmas movie. Yes to all three points you make. And as far as the new movies, I’ve only seen a few clip. Based on the small sampling, I like that they’re not using emotional cue music and swelling orchestra prompts to tell us what to feel- they’re more understated and subtle. A step in the right direction.

  23. Kristen Says No says:

    New LDS video Mary looks like a blue-eyed blonde woman with a wig/hair coloring + a dark eyebrow pencil. It can’t be *that* hard to find an acceptably authentic looking Mary. Beyond that (which is REALLY important to me), I like the videos.

  24. they forgot a multitude of the heavenly host praising God… it’s my favorite part.

  25. I do like how, in the shepherd one, the angel comes walking toward them in the field — a refreshingly different interpretation.

  26. I think it is often difficult to use exactly the Biblical text (KJV) without adding further dramatics. In the new church nativity I can’t help but think that the “actors” are simply reading a script. In trying to stay so close to the KJV we lose some characterisation and reactions of those involved in the great events that took place.

  27. @22: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheQueensLatin
    For me I’ll swallow the cultural imperialism of an all-white, English-speaking cast if I can get a Mary who does stuff! Passive, silent, dough-eyed Mary is not inspiring to me. I want Action Mary.

  28. Luke records that she was “troubled”, enough that the angel told her to “fear not”. You never get that from annunciation portrayals. “Mildly concerned” is about it.

    Forget Joseph and Mary’s “race” for a moment — it will be a wonderful day when we see an angel who isn’t white and/or male. As we project onto angels our views of heavenly humanity, this will speak volumes.

  29. For me I’ll swallow the cultural imperialism of an all-white, English-speaking cast if I can get a Mary who does stuff! Passive, silent, dough-eyed Mary is not inspiring to me. I want Action Mary.

    Matsby! I think we have our next Illuminated Matsby…

  30. I liked the new video better than previous versions, if only for the reason that nobody looks as if their beard just got stuck on in a trailer. I absolutely agree with Orwell about the single angel approaching the shepherds; I loved that bit. And speaking as someone who’s probably slightly nearer the Middle East than the majority of commenters, I like it that nobody sounds American. If you have difficulty with that, imagine living an entire life in the Church with nothing *but* American accents on every single motion picture and sound recording you see or hear. But I didn’t notice dough in anybody’s eyes.

  31. Glass Ceiling says:

    I’d like to see it in a quality black and white. And the more authentic the better. Jewish people speaking Aramaic. Sparse music with instruments from the time period.

  32. I agree with Tracy M. Please, please, please give us an Illuminated Matsby based on that excerpt.

  33. But I didn’t notice dough in anybody’s eyes.

    No doubt he meant a doe, a deer, a female deer.

  34. #34, probably so, but dough-eyed would be so much better in an Illuminated Matsby – or maybe one dough eye and one doe eye.

  35. I’d prefer a different kind of music than what we’ve been using in Church movies for the last 30 or so years. Using the same suspension to resolution orchestral bit again and again just makes it less effective over time.

    Though I also really liked the angel approaching the shepherds part, especially with the addition of the shepherds being ready to defend themselves, rather than just standing like an angel is an everyday occourance.

  36. Raymond Takashi Swenson says:

    I too was disappointed in the absence of a multitude of the heavenly host. I guess the actor budget or special effects budget was short and could not justify a heavenly crowd scene for a couple seconds of video. It would have been nice to hear an original a capella rendition of the biblical song, perhaps rendered more accurately in its original parallel verses as “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to men of good will on earth.”

    I was also a bit disappointed in the wise men. It looked like they had been cut into the story from an outtake of Amahl and the Night Visitors.

    As for the angel, this is expressly Gabriel, and modern revelation says he is Noah. So definitely male. On race, he should have a common ancestor of mankind look.

    As for the BBC English accents, it worked for Lord of the Rings and won huge box office and eleven Oscars, so why not!

  37. The sets look excellent; it is clear that they worked hard with what they had to make things look realistic, and it shows. Personally, I expected better from the film editors. When the angel visits the shepherds at night, he approaches them for-ever; it feels uncomfortable.