BORN UNDER WANDERING STAR
Putting the religion back into Christmas, Catherine Hardwicke, the edgy director of Thirteen, brings a youthful touch to the story of the nativity. She talks to Donald Clarke
OW times change. Fifty years ago, when the cinemas were awash with biblical epics, a film like The Nativity Story would have attracted no controversy whatsoever. At that point, despite the fact that many of the studios were run by Jewish businessmen, it was assumed that We In The West lived in a Christian society and that any film telling stories from the Bible was talking directly to this great homogenous Us. What could be less troublesome than a cosy film relating the birth of Jesus?
A brief glance at the press coverage accorded last year’s The Chronicles of Narnia – a supposed Christian allegory – should help clarify how the battle-lines in the cultural wars have been redrawn. On numerous radio shows, rightwing blowhards demanded more films like Disney’s CS Lewis adaptation and fewer dramas about sensitive, gay cowboys. The Passion of the Christ generated fiercer debate. The huge success of Mel Gibson’s biblical slasher flick – big in Iowa, ignored in the East Village – seemed to demonstrate that conservative Christians were crying out for material tailored to their sensibilities.
So The Nativity Story potters into town laden with plenty of baggage. Is it a prequel to The Passion? Does it owe its existence to Hollywood’s belated discovery of an untapped market? Is it aimed solely at believers?
The film’s director, Catherine Hardwicke, a friendly Texan with the unprimped look of a recovering hippie, has clearly been asked these questions many times already.
“The Passion generated huge box office partly because it was divisive,” she sighs. “There was all this talk of antiSemitism and that’s what drove a lot of people into the cinemas. In contrast, our film is intended to be cohesive rather than divisive. It is intended to bring people together. We had people from all three major religions on the crew and we worked very hard to get the Jewish aspects of the story right.”
Well, maybe. But the fact that the picture is to be premiered in the Vatican does suggest that the film-makers are gesturing towards one denomination in particular.
“It is very important to us to be inclusive,” Hardwicke counters. “Our premiere in the Vatican benefits a school in Israel that was bombed, and that school welcomes Christians, Jews and Muslims. It’s going to promote peace, and that’s a pretty cool message I think.”
If The Nativity’s producers were looking to find a spokes- person capable of reassuring eastern liberals that the film was not a piece of red-state propaganda, they could hardly have done better than Catherine Hardwicke. A former production designer whose excellent first film, Thirteen, brilliantly detailed the hellish malaises affecting contemporary teenage girls, Hardwickeworks desperately hard at spreading her message of inclusiveness, harmony and tolerance.
Maybe she works a little too hard at being all things to all punters. An attempt to discern if she believes the literal truth of the Christmas story elicits a lengthy description of her childhood on a town near the Mexican border. She remembers decking the halls in bright Latin-flavoured colours. Sometimes her cats would end up living in the nativity scene.
Yeah, all right. But does she believe that the Son of God was actually born to the Virgin Mary in a stable?
“I did a lot of research and that confirmed that all these stories have a truth at their heart,” she says enigmatically. “You could take the story literally. You could say: this could have happened. Then maybe you could view it as an incredible piece of magic realism. You can allow all those possibilities. These stories do tend to start with a kernel of truth and then people embellish them.”
I feel inclined to take this is as a lengthy “not really”. But conservative Christians need not worry that Hardwicke, a proud resident of LA’s hip west side, has turned the nativity story into some drug-fuelled, multi-racial, lesbian love romp. The picture is somewhat grittier in appearance than the conventional biblical epic, but it still finds time to walk us soberly through all the traditional elements of the Christmas story: shepherds, Herod, Magi, stable, unusual star and so forth.
“If you look at the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the passages about the nativity are actually very minimal. I thought, let’s take those incidents and then fill in the mo- ments between them. Then it would be reverential but also, I hope, bring life to the story.”
In truth, the picture’s only significant innovation is to cast a 16-year-old – Whale Rider’s Keisha Castle-Hughes – in the role of Mary. The frail young Maori’s turn certainly offers an interesting contrast with, say, Siobhan McKenna’s more, ahem, robust Virgin in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961).
“I was astonished to discover that Mary was 13 years old, according to a great many scholars,” Hardwicke says. “Life expectancy was so short then that as soon as they hit puberty they began working on babies. That was one of the things that got me interested. I began thinking: what if one of the characters from Thirteen was in this position?”
Shortly after shooting finished, Castle-Hughes, in an outrageous irony that no satirist would dare attempt, discovered that she was pregnant by her 19-year-old boyfriend. If, as we suspect, the studio is hoping to shift tickets to a socially conservative audience, then this was, from the producers’ perspective, a far from happy development.
“She is an actress, not the Virgin Mary,” Hardwicke says. “Mind you, her boyfriend actually is a carpenter. Really. But he is not named Joseph. But I think that maybe she got inspired by the film a bit. It was a surprise. When she was on the set she was always complaining about babies. ‘Teenagers shouldn’t have to deal with babies or animals.’”
Hardwicke, who, as Thirteen demonstrated, has a real feel for teenagers, goes on to praise Castle-Hughes’s bravery and warmth. “She has been pretty courageous. Since Whale Rider she has really been in the public eye. She knew when this happened there would be people like us gossiping in rooms with tape recorders on.”
So did the studio bosses collectively put their heads in their hands when they heard the news?
“Look, the whole basis of Judeo-Christian religion is not to judge other people. There is the Christian belief that you should not cast the first stone. So I would hope no Christians would be too critical of her. There is a line in the film that sums it up perfectly: ‘There is a will for this child than is greater than my fear of what others might say.’” The Nativity Story opens next Friday