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?