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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM -

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

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