Joseph Gets His Due

CNS photo/New Line
CNS photo/New Line )

LOS ANGELES — New Line Cinema’s The Nativity Story, opening nationwide Dec. 1, is a film of firsts.

Today, it’s slated to become the first film ever to premiere at the Vatican Nov. 26. It’s also the first major Hollywood film ever devoted to the real meaning of Christmas, discounting a couple of 1970s TV movies and a foreign film or two.

In addition, The Nativity Story is the first big-screen biblical film to focus on a character who is often a secondary player: Joseph of Nazareth.

He’s portrayed by Guatemalan newcomer Oscar Isaac, with a maturity and depth belying his 26 years. At a recent L.A. press event, Isaac, who described his upbringing as “very Christian,” said that he felt that it was important to make Joseph “as human as possible  —  to approach him like I would any other character. That’s how I would do him service.”

At the same time, Isaac was aware of the awesome responsibility of portraying the foster father of Jesus: “As much as I would try to treat him as any other character to be fair to him and not make him a walking icon — you go to the Vatican or something on some days off, and look at the paintings, and be like — wow, this is someone who’s inspired artists for years and years and years.”

Isaac realized something else while perusing Vatican art: Joseph may have inspired generations of artists, but he hasn’t always been in the foreground of people’s minds. He described a huge tapestry in which Joseph was “in the back with the sheep. He’s really a secondary character, I think, in a lot of people’s eyes.”

Screenwriter Mike Rich, a nondenominational Christian, agreed.

“I can’t recall another film where the evolution of Joseph’s character onscreen has really provided a spine and a backbone to the story. … Of all the characters that were in the script and during the writing of it, no character evolved more on the page than Joseph.”

For producer Marty Bowen, a Catholic and former altar boy, the heroism of St. Joseph is a significant theme in the Christmas story.

“I think it’s a story of heroism, and not heroism in an Audie Murphy take-over-a-Panzer-division version,” he said, describing the World War II hero and actor. “But a version of a simple man trying to do what he thinks is right. I think there is something heroic about that.”

Mass Appeal?

The filmmakers are aware that their comparatively young Joseph might be a point of controversy, and sought to downplay the issue.

“We met actors who were 40 to play the role,” said producer Wyck Godfrey, a Protestant, “so it’s not like we knew going in” what age Joseph would ultimately be. In part, Godfrey said, Joseph’s age in the film was determined by the actor they ultimately cast, rather than the other way around.

Unsurprisingly, demographics and modern cultural considerations may also have been a factor, according to Bowen. “We chose not to make him 50 and then have a 16-year-old bride, because I feel like it would have been very difficult to connect with them on a personal level.”

Director Catherine Hardwicke, a Protestant who was raised Presbyterian, expressed her hope that the film would offer viewers an opportunity to experience the Christmas story in a new way.

“By the use of this medium, you can take people inside a dark theater into almost a transformative experience where you are fully immersed in another world,” Hardwicke said, “through the music, through the clothing, through the textures, through the motions of the actors; [I hope] it will take us inside the words in a way that we’ve never been before.”

“We wanted to make a movie that a Christian audience would love and want to see at Christmastime,” said Bowen. “But at the same time, for those that don’t believe, but want to ... embrace this story and understand why Christians revere it — I think that was a delicate balance we tried to strike.”

Godfrey agreed.

“We wanted the film to be entertaining and compelling enough and a relatable enough story of faith for that huge audience out in the world that is searching for something and they don’t know what,” he said. “There’s an opportunity that they may stumble into the theaters and they may see something about it.”

The film’s story may already have begun to reach out across religious lines — even during production. While the director, screenwriter, producers and some of the actors come from Christian backgrounds, others involved in the project, such as Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, were raised in Islam or other faiths.

According to Aghdashloo, though her family was Muslim, she learned from her grandmother “that if I want to know my neighbor, I should know his culture and his religion.” Her grandmother, by whom Aghdashloo was largely raised, seems to have practiced what she preached: She owned a Christian Bible in Farsi, and “studied Bible and Torah — she loved learning about other religions.”

The Passion

Praising her character Elizabeth as a woman of great faith and virtue despite not having been blessed with a child, Aghdashloo described her spiritual quest to create a pure, selfless character with no trace of venality: “Every morning I was meditating,” she said, “so I can come up with a pair of eyes that are always smiling, with an unconditional love.”

For inspiration, unsurprisingly, she turned to her grandmother, whom she described making trips to the bazaar to purchase goods to give away in the slums.

Aghdashloo also praised another landmark Christian film — The Passion of the Christ — that the other filmmakers agreed had opened the doors in Hollywood for this and future biblical films. “I love The Passion of the Christ,” said Aghdashloo, “although the two films are taking two different paths.”

“The success of The Passion definitely made this film possible on a studio level,” producer Godfrey acknowledged. At the same time, he stressed that Hollywood hasn’t exactly been bending over backwards to cash in on The Passion’s success. In the nearly three years since The Passion’s debut, The Nativity Story may be the only big-studio religious film, and certainly the only big-studio Bible film, to benefit from The Passion.

Perhaps The Nativity Story may even open more doors in Hollywood for future Bible films — especially if it achieves success without Passion-like controversy. “I hope that what’s controversial about this film is the lack of controversy,” said Godfrey. “I really do. I think this is a movie for families, and I certainly hope that people embrace it for that.”

Steven D. Greydanus is film critic for the National Catholic Register.