2 items from 2006
Hollywood is in a born-again mode with its rediscovery that Biblical epics can bring manna at the boxoffice. In New Line Cinema's "The Nativity Story" we have the first smart, artistically and spiritually satisfying film to emerge from this trend. The familiar story, iconic aspects of which will decorate many front lawns during the next few weeks, unfolds in a scrupulously accurate historical adventure story that depicts the world of Jesus' birth with an exciting you-are-there verisimilitude.
Young Keisha Castle-Hughes (an Oscar nominee for "Whale Rider") plays not so much the Virgin Mary but a gutsy young woman born to an honorable though struggling Jewish family in Nazareth, who handles miracles and hardships with a tough-minded spirit. When a diaphanous Archangel Gabriel puts in appearances, we're clearly in the realm of mythology. But the movie, written by Mike Rich and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, sticks as close as possible to a realistic account of the Christ child's birth.
The faithful will flock to this well-told tale -- and DVD sales will be formidable -- but there is room at the inn for nonbelievers, who appreciate a good story told with cinematic flair. Because most "Christmas movies" these days are mean spirited -- i.e., "Deck the Halls" -- "Nativity" is positively refreshing.
Hardwicke has directed the teens-on-the-edge-of-disaster drama "thirteen" and the Venice skateboard film "Lords of Dogtown", neither of which prepares us for her stepping into the scandals of Cecil B. DeMille. But step she does with remarkable assuredness and sensitivity. She and Rich shake off any qualms they might have entertained about retelling a Sunday school story and go for the inherent drama of an epic about sacrifice and destiny.
At the time of Jesus' birth, the Holy Land was a fearful place, occupied by arrogant Roman soldiers under the command of King Herod, a client of Caesar Augustus. Yet the king quakes in morbid fear of the Old Testament prophecy of a Messiah, who will overthrow his rule, even to the point of ordering the slaughter of all male children, under 2 years of age, in the city of Bethlehem.
The movie retreats one year to account for this drastic action. In Nazareth, a city hounded by the king's tax collectors, economic necessity forces Anna (Hiam Abbass) and Joaquim (Shaun Toub) to tell their daughter Mary (Castle-Hughes) they have arranged her marriage to "a good man" named Joseph (Oscar Isaac). Troubled by this news, she retreats to an olive grove where the angel Gabriel Alexander Siddig) appears and tells her that the Holy Spirit will cause her to bear a son she will name Jesus, who will be mankind's savior.
Her aging cousin Elizabeth (Oscar-nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo) is experiencing a similar miracle, newly pregnant by her equally ancient husband Zechariah (Stanley Townsend), a priest. Mary convinces her parents to allow her to visit the pious couple to sort out her life. It is here she experiences the Immaculate Conception.
But returning to her hometown clearly pregnant, she puts her new husband in a moral dilemma. No one in town, not even her parents, believe her story about angels and conception. In many ways, it is Joseph who is the real hero of this story, a man who stoically accepts a role that in many eyes brands him a cuckold. Some of the movie's best passages survey his evolving spiritual awareness of this role.
Meanwhile, in Persia, three Magi -- Melchoir (Nadim Sawalha) the scholar, Gasper (Stepan Kalipha) the translator and Balthasar (Eriq Ebouaney) the confident Ethiopian astronomer -- study celestial charts and maps to discover that the signs of the Messiah's coming are unmistakable. Melchoir convinces his reluctant companions to undertake the hazardous journey through the wilderness to witness the child's entry into the world.
The film follows these story lines, paying close attention to details. This ancient world -- its flowing clothes, stone houses, scattered settlements and vast, forbidding deserts -- displays harmonious, earthen colors that delight the eye in Elliot Davis' subtle cinematography. Here we witness the close proximity of mankind with their livestock. And the spiritual awareness of a people, subjugated by foreign troops, dominates all thought and action.
The film's locations -- Matera, Italy; Morocco; and Israel -- supply amazing terrain, while production designer Stefano Maria Ortolani dresses real locations and sets that make this world come vibrantly alive. Stables are cramped, filthy places; a river crossing invites disaster; wise men weary of the journey; and treachery lurks everywhere. Mychael Danna's music is a major plus as it underscores rather than overrides the film's emotions.
THE NATIVITY STORY
New Line Cinema
A Temple Hill production
Credits: Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Screenwriter: Mike Rich
Producers: Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen
Director of photography: Elliot Davis
Production designer: Stefano Maria Ortolani
Music: Mychael Danna
Costume designer: Maurizio Millenotti
Editor: Robert K. Lambert, Stuart Levy
Mary: Keisha Castle-Hughes
Joseph: Oscar Isaac
Anna: Hiam Abbass
Joaquim: Shaun Toub
Archangel Gabriel: Alexander Siddig
Melchoir: Nadim Sawalha
Balthasar: Eriq Ebouaney
Gaspar: Stefan Kalipha
King Herod: Ciaran Hinds
Elizabeth: Shohreh Aghdashloo
Running time -- 102 minutes
MPAA rating: PG
"Azur & Asmar" is pure magic. Animator Michel Ocelot, whose "Kirikou and the Sorceress" was a huge boxoffice and critical success in France in 1998, has now created an Oriental tale equal to such stories as "Aladdin and His Magic Lamp". He then gives this rousing fantasy-adventure a contemporary point of view by emphasizing the need for brotherhood and understanding among races and religions on both side of the East/West divide. Ocelot claims he never makes children's film because, as he rightly points out, children aren't interested in films designed strictly for them. True to those principles, "Azur & Asmar" blends a highly sophisticated art design with a tale of childlike wonder and innocence that speaks to open-minded humans of any age.
The release of this film in French-speaking territories will be accompanied by an extensive multi-media merchandizing campaign, publication of books and the release of soundtrack CDs and educational interactive materials. Whether the film will penetrate Middle Eastern markets though, given current political conditions, or other non-French speaking markets is hard to say. Certainly Ocelot makes no concessions to the puritanical mind-set of the MPAA's ratings board by including the nipple of a woman nursing two children in the opening scene. One can only hope a distributor will find a way to bring such an emotionally rich and rewarding film to North American audiences.
In medieval Europe, an Arab nursemaid, Jenane (voiced by Hiam Abbass), raises two "sons" on a feudal estate. One is her own Asmar, a dark-haired and dark-eyed boy, and the other is Azur, the blond and blue-eyed son of the master. Eventually, Azur's severe father separates the two brothers before adolescence, contemptuously casting out Asmar and his mother to their fate.
As an adult, Azur (Cyril Mourali) remains haunted by Jenane's tales of her colorful land and of the beautiful, imprisoned Fairy of the Djinns who must be rescued by a prince. He sets sail for this land, gets swept overboard in a storm and washes up on a foul shore whose inhabitants forsake him because of his blue-eyes, the sign of a curse.
Posing as a blind man, Azur allows a thief and fellow immigrant, Crapoux (Patrick Timsit), to guide him to the city, where he recognizes Jenane's voice coming from behind a mansion wall. She is now a wealthy merchant, who welcomes her long-lost son with love. However, Asmar, now a dashing horseman, rejects his foster brother.
Ever rivals, the two brothers set out to free the Fairy of the Djinns. Jenane, who still refuses to play favorites, finances each one equally. Their journeys pit them against bandits and slave traders, each saving the other's life more than once before they penetrate together the Room of Lights, where the Fairy princess awaits her true love.
Based on no particular Arabian tale, Ocelot's story nonetheless merges classical images and stories from North Africa and Persia. Combining 2D and 3D animation, he evokes Oriental architecture -- with its mosaics, formal gardens and repetition of motifs and symmetry -- with brilliantly colored characters.
The chases and fights are exciting but often rendered in profile as in a Mogul drawing. Wondrous creatures put in key appearances such as a Scarlet Lion with blue claws and the Saimourh, a kind of flying peacock that whisks people across vast expanses.
Ocelot doesn't translate the Arabic in subtitles, leaving a western viewer with a sense of dislocation and loss. Underscoring these cultural and linguistic barriers between peoples with different beliefs puts matters into a very modern context. Yet the film delivers its messages about empathy and compassion with the lightest of touches. A musical score from Gabriel Yared adds to the multi-cultural richness by combining musical themes from both sides of the Mediterranean.
AZUR & ASMAR
Writer/director/graphic artist: Michel Ocelot
Producer: Christophe Rossignon
Executivbe producer: Eve Machuel
Backgrounds: Anne-Lise Lourdelet-Koehler
Music: Gabriel Yared.
Cast: Azur (adult): Cyril Mourali
Asmar (adult): Karim M'Ribah
Jenane: Hiam Abbass
Crapoux: Patrick Timsit
Princess Chamsous Sabah: Fatma Ben Khell
Azur (child): Rayan Mahjoub
Asmar (child): Abdelsselem Ben Amar
No MPAA rating
Running time -- 99 minutes »
2 items from 2006
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