The Virgin Mary At the Movies
By Steven D. Greydanus
Mary of Nazareth, now touring North America in isolated screenings hosted by Ignatius Press, is the latest in a number of films over the last couple of decades focusing in a special way on the role of the Blessed Virgin in the gospel story. This development began in 1995 with Mary of Nazareth, the final film of French director Jean Delannoy, best known to Catholic audiences for his 1988 film, Bernadette.
In the 1999 TV movie Mary, Mother of Jesus, Christian Bale (Batman Begins) played Jesus opposite Swedish actress Pernilla August (who that same year also played the mother of miracle child Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace!). Then came the 2006 film The Nativity Story, still the only major feature film to focus specifically on the infancy narratives.
In 2012, Mary of Nazareth debuted on Italian television as a two-part, 200-minute miniseries produced by Lux Vide (Restless Heart; Clare and Francis). The film currently screening is a 153-minute recut of this miniseries.
While details differ among these presentations, recurring patterns appear. St. Joseph is always a virile young man with an entirely ordinary interest in Mary. Mary is always either open to his interest, or, in The Nativity Story, resistant for purely emotional reasons.
When Mary returns from visiting Elizabeth, she is visibly pregnant (not a given for a young mother’s first baby after only the first trimester), and scandal ensues. Not only Joseph but also Mary’s parents, Anne and Joachim, are furious over her evident immorality. Typically, she tells them what really happened, and none of them believe her—until the angel appears also to Joseph.
In Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph are guided to the stable by a kind woman, and Joseph is usually discreetly absent (fetching water or firewood) when the Child arrives, followed shortly by a convergence of shepherds and wise men. (Invariably, Mary is holding the baby Jesus when the shepherds arrive; he is never actually in the manger, even when the shepherds quote the angel on this point!)
There’s nothing terribly wrong with this composite interpretation of events—though someday I hope to see a cinematic telling that takes seriously the traditions of Mary’s manifest specialness from childhood, including her consecrated virginity and the understanding from the outset with her parents and Joseph that hers would be a non-consummated marriage. (On Mary’s part, at least, an intention of lifelong virginity seems necessary to make sense of her bewildered response to Gabriel: But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” Luke 1:34).
By far my favorite screen depiction of the infancy narratives, and my preferred Christmas viewing, remains the first 105 minutes of Franco Zeffirelli’s epic miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. Olivia Hussey is both luminous and ingenuous as Mary, and her performance is the key to the transcendent Annunciation—the only effective, moving Annunciation I’ve seen. Zeffirelli wisely never lets us see or hear the angel; with St. Anne, we see only moonlight pouring through a window on Mary, and hear a distant dog barking. Yet Hussey’s reactions persuasively take us from the fear of the angel’s first appearance to the reverent submission of the Fiat.
Later, Jesus of Nazareth offers an appealing twist on “Who are my mother and brothers?” by having Mary herself echo Jesus’ words to a bystander who says to her, “You are his mother”— “Anyone who believes in our Father in heaven is his brother, his sister, his mother.”
Another remarkable cinematic depiction of Jesus’ mother is Cecil B. DeMille’s silent 1927/28 gospel epic, The King of Kings, in which we meet Mary (Dorothy Cumming) bringing a blind boy to Jesus amid an opening sequence of healing miracles. Because DeMille first shows us the face of Jesus through the eyes of this blind boy, Mary essentially brings the viewer to her Son.
At the climax, the Resurrection—filmed in a rare, early Technicolor process—DeMille gives us an episode about which, despite the silence of the Gospels, devout believers have long speculated fondly: a special first appearance by our Lord to his mother.
A third outstanding portrayal of the Blessed Virgin is Maia Morgenstern in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ. Gibson shows us a Virgin Mary deeply attuned to Jesus, from the memorable scene in which mother and imprisoned Son, separated by stone and earth, are supernaturally aware of each other, to the poignant flashback to Jesus’ childhood at the fourth station on Jesus’ via crucis. Gibson’s haunting Pietà, with a solemn Mary gazing directly into the camera as she holds Jesus’ ravaged body, powerfully implicates the viewers’ sins for Jesus’s passion.
As memorable as some of these depictions are, there’s still plenty of room for new cinematic interpretations of Mary. Particularly with respect to the infancy narratives, there’s still a Christmas classic waiting to be made.