Arts / Entertainment

Film Review: Mary of Nazareth

It's no "Passion of the Christ", but it's a fine movie, and, unlike most Hollywood adaptations, they manage to keep their theology straight.

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November 15, 2013
There are some things we can be pretty sure Saints Joachim and Anne never experienced with their daughter, the Virgin Mary. They probably never had to tell the young Mary to do her homework, only to have her fall to the floor sobbing hysterically and crying out, “This is so unfair!” It's unlikely they ever had to physically threaten the pre-adolescent Mary into taking a bath at least every other day. And chances are they never had the teenage Mary relentlessly hound them to allow her to get a piercing in some location on her body that nobody besides her future husband should ever conceivably be able to see in the first place. 

In fact, since the majority of Christians throughout history have believed that Mary remained sinless over the course of her life (while tossing a few books out of the Bible, even Martin Luther himself still managed to hold on to that one), could anyone be blamed for wondering if Joachim and Anne really knew what it was like to actually raise a typical teenage girl? But then we arrive at the moment in the couple’s life – as wonderfully depicted in Giacomo Campiotti’s film, Mary of Nazareth – where the good saints’ unwed teenage daughter arrives home after a four-month stay with her cousin, sporting a very noticeable baby bump. And worse yet, when they question Mary about who the father is, the girl has the audacity to claim that not only is she still a virgin, but that it was God himself who just magicked the baby in there or something. So from the standpoint of Joachim and Anne at that particular point in time, their adolescent daughter was completely irrational, oblivious to the consequences of her actions, and possibly insane. In other words, they knew exactly what it felt like to raise a teenage girl.

That’s always the problem for biblical movies, especially those dealing with Jesus and Mary: how do you present a story portraying a sinless person and yet still have that character connect to people on a basic human level? How do you make the audience identify with someone who never did anything bad? Well, in most cases, the answer has been not to try. What most bible flicks have done instead is provide us with a bunch of sinful supporting players, folks like the Apostles and Mary Magdalene, and let us identify with them and their reactions to the sinless ones. And as Mary of Nazareth begins, it looks at first as if that’s the approach the filmmakers are going to pursue.

The movie starts with a scene in which a group of marauders led by Herod’s wife, Erodiade (or Herodias, take your pick), scour Nazareth in search of a prophesied young girl who will birth the Messiah. So right away, it becomes clear that this movie is going to include details from apocryphal writings and extra-biblical folk tales to help flesh out its 2 1/2 hour running time. That’s not really a problem, since most biblical movies have to fill in the narrative gaps that exist between bible verses, and at least this one draws mostly from existing legends and pious devotions rather than just tacking on standard Hollywood tropes like silly love triangles and the such (yes, I’m looking at you, The Ten Commandments). Here, the movie borrows from the medieval belief that Erodiade was some kind of witch, and presents her as something of an arch-nemesis to our heroine. I’m not sure the story of Mary really needs its own Dr. Evil, but the character does provide some entertaining moments throughout the film, so her presence isn’t a huge negative.

At any rate, Erodiade’s men fail to find Mary because their dogs can’t sniff out her hiding place. There’s an odd line here about the hounds having the ability to ferret out any daughter of Eve that heavily suggests dogs can smell sin (hey, maybe that’s why our pets just sit and stare at us all the time), which would explain why they’re unable to locate the sinless Mary. Whatever the reason, Joachim and Anne are as confused as anyone else over the child’s miraculous escape, and this causes Joachim to exasperatingly exclaim, “Mary is a mystery too great for us!” It's that bit of clunky dialogue that suggests that the Mary we’re going to see over the course of the film is going to be little more than the porcelain image so often presented on statues and holy cards rather than a flesh-and-blood person.
There are some things we can be pretty sure Saints Joachim and Anne never experienced with their daughter, the Virgin Mary. They probably never had to tell the young Mary to do her homework, only to have her fall to the floor sobbing hysterically and crying out, “This is so unfair!” It's unlikely they ever had to physically threaten the pre-adolescent Mary into taking a bath at least every other day. And chances are they never had the teenage Mary relentlessly hound them to allow her to get a piercing in some location on her body that nobody besides her future husband should ever conceivably be able to see in the first place. 

In fact, since the majority of Christians throughout history have believed that Mary remained sinless over the course of her life (while tossing a few books out of the Bible, even Martin Luther himself still managed to hold on to that one), could anyone be blamed for wondering if Joachim and Anne really knew what it was like to actually raise a typical teenage girl? But then we arrive at the moment in the couple’s life – as wonderfully depicted in Giacomo Campiotti’s film, Mary of Nazareth – where the good saints’ unwed teenage daughter arrives home after a four-month stay with her cousin, sporting a very noticeable baby bump. And worse yet, when they question Mary about who the father is, the girl has the audacity to claim that not only is she still a virgin, but that it was God himself who just magicked the baby in there or something. So from the standpoint of Joachim and Anne at that particular point in time, their adolescent daughter was completely irrational, oblivious to the consequences of her actions, and possibly insane. In other words, they knew exactly what it felt like to raise a teenage girl.

That’s always the problem for biblical movies, especially those dealing with Jesus and Mary: how do you present a story portraying a sinless person and yet still have that character connect to people on a basic human level? How do you make the audience identify with someone who never did anything bad? Well, in most cases, the answer has been not to try. What most bible flicks have done instead is provide us with a bunch of sinful supporting players, folks like the Apostles and Mary Magdalene, and let us identify with them and their reactions to the sinless ones. And as Mary of Nazareth begins, it looks at first as if that’s the approach the filmmakers are going to pursue.

The movie starts with a scene in which a group of marauders led by Herod’s wife, Erodiade (or Herodias, take your pick), scour Nazareth in search of a prophesied young girl who will birth the Messiah. So right away, it becomes clear that this movie is going to include details from apocryphal writings and extra-biblical folk tales to help flesh out its 2 1/2 hour running time. That’s not really a problem, since most biblical movies have to fill in the narrative gaps that exist between bible verses, and at least this one draws mostly from existing legends and pious devotions rather than just tacking on standard Hollywood tropes like silly love triangles and the such (yes, I’m looking at you, The Ten Commandments). Here, the movie borrows from the medieval belief that Erodiade was some kind of witch, and presents her as something of an arch-nemesis to our heroine. I’m not sure the story of Mary really needs its own Dr. Evil, but the character does provide some entertaining moments throughout the film, so her presence isn’t a huge negative.

At any rate, Erodiade’s men fail to find Mary because their dogs can’t sniff out her hiding place. There’s an odd line here about the hounds having the ability to ferret out any daughter of Eve that heavily suggests dogs can smell sin (hey, maybe that’s why our pets just sit and stare at us all the time), which would explain why they’re unable to locate the sinless Mary. Whatever the reason, Joachim and Anne are as confused as anyone else over the child’s miraculous escape, and this causes Joachim to exasperatingly exclaim, “Mary is a mystery too great for us!” It's that bit of clunky dialogue that suggests that the Mary we’re going to see over the course of the film is going to be little more than the porcelain image so often presented on statues and holy cards rather than a flesh-and-blood person.


Fortunately, once the film moves into more familiar biblical territory, it settles down (mostly) and tries its best to give us a Mary who seems like a real everyday woman, and it falls on the shoulders of German born actress Alissa Jung to pull off the formidable task. Yes, this is another film which uses Western actors to portray middle-Eastern characters, but it's not too distracting (though I'm pretty sure the child Jesus never had curly golden locks), since it’s a time honored tradition in western art to do so. Jung’s primary approach in portraying Mary is to have her go-to expression be that of a resigned, forbearing smile. When her parents understandably freak out over her unexpected pregnancy, Mary sheds a tear and then gives a little smile as if to say, “They’ll understand one day.” Which, of course, they did. When an angry Joseph offers not to formally accuse her of adultery (an instant death sentence at that time) because she’s obviously a lunatic whom he still loves (we’ve all been there), Mary momentarily looks fretful and then gives a little smile as if to say, “He’ll come around one day.” Which, of course, he did. When the neighbors in Nazareth stand off to the side refusing to take part in her and Joseph's wedding celebration, Mary... well, you get the idea.

I'm sure it sounds as if I'm criticizing Jung’s performance, but I'm really not. If you’re going to accept the idea that Mary was sinless thanks to the grace of God (which, as a Catholic, I have no problem accepting), then that is, admittedly, one tough character for an actor to inhabit. Jung actually does fine as Mary, and there are times when the smile is absolutely perfect. I’m thinking in particular of the well-known scene from the gospels in which Mary tries to get in to see Jesus as he teaches and, rather than immediately allow her entrance, he launches instead into a theological sermon on “Who are my mother and my brothers?” As depicted in the film, Mary frowns in confusion at first, but then understanding creeps in and the smile emerges. When questioned how she can continue to follow her son on his travels after such an apparent slight, Mary answers simply, “He’s my Lord.” That's the Mary I've come to know and love since my conversion.

Now, will the portrayal appeal to a broader audience, and not just fans of Mary like myself? That I can’t predict. In general movie terms, the production is slightly better than most television fare, but nowhere near the cinematic quality of something like The Passion of the Christ. The acting, especially Luca Marinelli as Joseph, is generally good, but occasionally some of the extras appear to forget just exactly what it is there supposed to be doing in certain scenes. And – let’s face it – the story is overly familiar (or it should be if you’ve been paying attention during Mass and faith formation). Still, the film does offer up a few nice surprises. For instance, having Jesus join in the dancing at the wedding in Cana seems obvious, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it on film before. It’s a nice touch.

All in all, Mary of Nazareth is a fine addition to the biblical film genre, and it does a fair job of putting a human face to the idealized image we’ve grown accustomed to. If you somehow manage to find it showing in one of its limited theatrical runs, or if you run across a screening at a local church, it’s definitely worth taking in. And go ahead and take your teenage daughter along with you – she just might appreciate it as well. (Though she may not admit it until she turns thirty.)
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