VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - “The Nativity Story”, a Hollywood movie of the story of Mary and Joseph before the birth of Jesus, had its world premiere at the Vatican on Sunday and won strong praise from the man known as the “deputy pope”.
The audience of some 8,000 people who attended a benefit gala premiere in the Vatican’s vast Paul VI Hall broke into applause five times during the screening and again at the end. It was the first feature film to premiere at the Vatican.
“It is well done,” said Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, who ranks second only to Pope Benedict in the Vatican hierarchy.
“It re-proposes this event which changed history with realism but also with a sense of great respect of the mystery of the nativity,” he told reporters afterwards. “It is a good cinematic event ... the judgement is positive.”
The film stars 16-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes as the Virgin Mary. Castle-Hughes, an Academy Award nominee who rose to cinema fame in “Whale Rider”, is a New Zealander who is pregnant and unmarried in real life and did not attend the premiere.
Vatican officials have denied reports that the Pope did not attend the premiere because of the unwed pregnancy controversy. They said he never planned to attend because he is 79 and resting ahead of a difficult trip to Turkey starting on Tuesday.
The premiere was attended by Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who was nominated for best supporting actress for her role in “House of Sand and Fog”. She plays the role of Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin and mother of John the Baptist.
It was also attended by Oscar Isaac, who plays Joseph, director Catherine Hardwicke (“Thirteen”, “Lords of Dogtown”) and writer Mike Rich (“The Rookie”, “Finding Forrester”).
The film, made by New Line Cinema, which opens worldwide on December 1, tells the story of Mary and Joseph’s arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where it ends with the birth of Jesus.
It portrays Mary and Joseph as simple, poor Jews and realistically reconstructs villages in Biblical Israel.
Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, said the very few artistic liberties the film took with gospel accounts “do not harm the presentation of this sacred and unique story”.
He praised the film as a valid tool for religious education “because it introduces us to the mystery of the great gift of God”.
The stark simplicity of the film, made in southern Italy and Morocco, makes it very unlike the big blockbuster star-studded gospel stories of the 1950s and 1960s such as “King of Kings”, “The Ten Commandments”, and “The Greatest Story Ever Told”.
Following the release in 2004 of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, it also is the latest release marking a trend in the return of movies with religious themes, once a staple of big Hollywood productions decades ago.
Proceeds from the Vatican benefit premiere will go to the building of a school in the Galilee village of Mughar which will be attended by Druze, Christian and Muslim children.
The Holy Land village has been the scene fierce sectarian strife in the past. The school construction project is being coordinating by Cor Unum (One Heart), the Vatican’s charity arm.
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