SAN FRANCISCO — Mary of Nazareth, a new film about the life of the Mother of Jesus, had its U.S. premiere in San Francisco on Oct. 11.

The sold-out event at the AMC Metreon was hosted by Ignatius Press, the distributor of the film and the nation’s largest Catholic publisher. The premiere drew Catholics from across California and neighboring states, marking the advance of a new strategy by Ignatius, which has partnered with Carmel Communications to encourage Catholic organizations to host their own premieres of the film as a vehicle for fundraising. The film will not be available on DVD “until well into or near the end of 2014,” Ignatius noted on the Mary of Nazareth website.

The film offers a sweeping portrait of the life of the Blessed Virgin, from her childhood to the resurrection of her Son. Alissa Jung stars as Mary, a loving mother and devout believer who embraces God’s intervention in her life and in human history. In her humility, she receives the spiritual graces she needs to withstand the forces of darkness that seek to prevent the coming of the Messiah.

“What I love about this film is that it doesn’t contain a melodramatic presentation of piety that comes off as goofy or saccharine. Yet it also avoids the pitfall of wanting to appeal to people by showing Mary on a human level” as just another “sassy” teenager, said Marian Father of the Immaculate Conception Donald Calloway, an author of books on Mary, who briefly addressed the enthusiastic audience at the premiere.

“They have presented her in all her feminine wonder, yet serpents and soldiers move away from her: Her feminine look has power. She comes across as a ‘saint maker,’” Father Calloway told the Register during an interview before the premiere.

Mary of Nazareth was introduced in San Francisco just days before Pope Francis consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and the Holy Father’s Oct. 13 homily echoed the themes explored in the film.

“At the message of the angel, she does not hide her surprise. It is the astonishment of realizing that God, to become man, had chosen her, a simple maid of Nazareth,” said the Pope.

Mary was “simply someone who was open to God and put her trust in him, even without understanding everything: ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ That was her answer.”

Said the Pope, “God constantly surprises us; he bursts our categories; he wreaks havoc with our plans. And he tells us: Trust me; do not be afraid. Let yourself be surprised; leave yourself behind and follow me!”


Alissa Jung

Alissa Jung, the German actress who plays Mary, told the Register that researching and then playing the role drew her into the mystery of the Incarnation and the challenge an unexpected, miraculous pregnancy posed to Mary’s standing in her community.

“Mary was only 14 or 15 [according to some scholars], and she risked losing all the people she loved. But she accepted God’s plan and went forward in peace, without fighting or argument. That is real strength,” said Jung.

Playing the role of Mary, who embarked on a marriage that sharply departed from traditional practice, led Jung to ponder the great love that drew the Holy Family together.

“It was important that everything that happens is an expression of love,” she said. “Joseph stays with her because he loves her, not because he has to do it. They live together and, in modern terms, it seems absurd. But with love, it is not absurd. She accepted this way and lived it joyfully.”

The 153-minute HD film was directed by Giacomo Campiotti, an Italian whose credits include Bakhita, the story of St. Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese-born former slave who joined an Italian religious order; an adaptation of Doctor Zhivago and a television movie, St. Giuseppe Moscati: Doctor to the Poor.

The screenplay was written by Francesco Arlanch, who also wrote the script for Restless Heart, a well-received film about the life of St. Augustine.

Mary of Nazareth was shot in English and includes Andreas Pietschmann as Jesus, Luca Marinelli as Joseph, Paz Vega as Mary Magdalene and Antonia Liskova as Herodias.


Marian Cinema

Father Calloway said he began promoting the film after Ignatius Press sent him a review copy and asked for his opinion. He loves the way the film presents Mary’s role in the battle between good and evil, and he thinks it could help inspire interest and devotion to the Mother of Jesus.

His other favorite films about Mary, he said, are Song of Bernadette, The 13th Day, about the Marian apparitions at Fatima, and the “portrayal of Mary in the 2004 blockbuster The Passion of the Christ.” The latter production, like Mary of Nazareth, depicts Mary’s deep love for her Son and her great suffering as she experiences his passion and death.

While the Gospels anchor the Church’s reverence for Mary, scenes in The Passion and Mary of Nazareth also incorporate fragments from the writings of the German mystic Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, which shed light on the largely hidden life of Mary.

Though she emerges as a major presence in the Gospels, Mary only appears occasionally, often during episodes shadowed by grave danger, such as the birth of Christ, his presentation at the Temple and the Crucifixion.

“The battle of good and evil is the way that God has set up human history, from Genesis to the Book of Revelation, where a woman conquers the dragon,” observed Father Calloway, who liked the film’s depiction of watershed moments that require Mary to confront danger head-on.

“God does it all himself,” he said. “Mary isn’t God, but he desires to do it through her. It is though her dainty feminine heel that the devil is crushed.”


Pope Francis’ Devotion to Mary

Father Calloway noted Pope Francis’ consecration of the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and he said the Holy Father’s action “shows a real continuity between the last two pontificates.”

“Right after Francis was elected, he went the next day to St. Mary Major to pray,” he said. “That tells us something about Mary’s role in his pontificate.”

“As the Vicar of Christ, he is continuing to show us the importance of Mary’s place in our lives. When you consecrate the world to her, you are showing that this is important for everyone. Mary is part of 21st-century Catholicism. She is not just a figure from the past.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.