Lucifer Jones

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Nativity

The Nativity is a film which goes just far enough from the hokey to be satisfyingly profound. It's a nicely rounded period film that doesn't try too hard to be documentarily authentic, but gives just enough detail to get you right into the story. I think this one will stand the test of time.

The strengths of the film are obvious. It is the story of Mary and Joseph told very well, and it makes one appreciate exactly what kind of tribulations he faced as a young betrothed husband. I think nobody has quite appreciated Joseph as has this director. Similarly the actress portraying Mary demonstrates her fragility and humble simplicity. It is something of a breakthrough portrait of the Blessed Virgin. Films always approach them as if they are completely dumbfounded by what is about to happen or strangely calm and precient, full of capital D Dignity. In this film the right balance is struck. Their dignity and strength comes from their simple honor in the ways that simple folk must honor social traditions. They face the extraordinary burden in the way that people must; all you know is that by doing right by your family and community you must have faith that you can bear up. You give it your all. In this Joseph has a great line in the film 'I will give my all to protect your daughter and her child'. There is little more you can ask of a good man.

Director Catherine Hardwicke has a straightforward yet deft touch and there is a little something extra in every scene with the Magi. But nothing quite compares to their expressions when they come to present gifts at the manger. It is, for all its predictability, a scene that defies dry eyes.

It is hard to explain.

You see there is, in my filmic vocabulary and experience, almost nothing to compare such a scene of divine reverence. You don't see acting like this precisely because you don't see stories in which wise men are humbled by the realization of a prophesy. No matter how many times you have heard the phrase 'king of kings', I swear that you've never seen it acted like this.

So the last time I got this weepy at a film, it was the battle scene in Kurosawa's Ran. Well that was just a couple months ago. Maybe I'm getting soft in my old age, but this film was an emotional experience for me, especially since I saw it with my brothers and some of their kids. My mother was there too and the 11 of us took up an entire row at the theatre.

It's a very good film that moves along well. There's a great deal to see and talk about in this film although the dialog gets fairly sparse sometimes. It dips very shallowly into some hokum but more than redeems itself with some stunning honesty, insight and gravity on the Holy Story. I highly recommend this for families and kids over 10, with qualifications for those who might not quite understand the dilemma of a virgin birth.

Very good film.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

My Bar Mitzvah

One of the boisterous boys that Boy hangs out with carried the Torah around the congregation today for the first time. It was also a first for me, the first time I'd attended a Jewish ceremony. It left me with several interesting impressions.

The first thing I noticed about today's Shabbat was the number and frequency with which the congregation gives praise to God. In the 2.5 hours I attended, with my head covered in reverence to the presense of the Almighty, I could almost recite Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha'olam oseh ma'aseh vereshit. Already the rhythm of that incantation is lost to me, but I'm sure that I could pick it up within a few minutes of hearing it again at another service.

I'm struck, as most folks probably stereotypically are, at the arcanity of the rites which are certainly deeply known to the devout and yet almost entirely unknown to the rest of us. We know something happens in Temple. We know our Jewish friends are different somehow (If we know they are practicing Jews), but what it is we don't quite know, until we go. What struck me was the offhandedness with which much of it is referred. I asked a co-worker last week what might be considered an appropriate gift for this ceremony and he sounded completely dismissive when he suggested a videogame. I tend to believe this is a subtlety, perhaps even a defense mechanism I have never recognized before.

I love the interplay between the rabbi as celebrant and the Cantor and the extent to which they call and respond in bumpy unison with the congregation. I am intrigued by the calling to the people by the rabbi when he teaches the lesson of the day. What did Joseph do next, and why was Jacob's withdrawal from criticism of his vision important?

There was little surprise at the reverence paid the Torah itself and not much of a revelation in how much Hebrew shares in common with Arabic. The standing and sitting on cue as well as reciting from the prayer book was perfectly familiar.

The extent to which the expression of worship is literal was underscored to me, and also the extent to which Jews take their example to the world seriously. Both of these qualities were enormously refreshing to me. There is more than sentiment at work with their affections towards Israel and a great deal of confidence expressed in their choice to take what their faith offers. It's something I would expect to find much parallel agreement to the comments of the Pope this year as regards the putative coercion of Islam. As well, these Jews take very seriously their integration with the West, with the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Somewhere in my universe are 613 commandments. Undiscovered, undeclared perhaps, but awaiting discovery in my lifelong call to living in light. It is good to know I have brothers