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She knows her mind: Castle-Hughes in The Nativity Story.

Holy Teenage Mom

By Laura Leon

The Nativity Story

Directed by Catherine Hardwicke

At first blush, Catherine Hard-wicke would seem an odd choice to direct a movie about the Virgin Mary. I mean, this is the woman who delivered a cold hard slice of reality with the masterful Thirteen, in which pubescent girls engage in all sorts of grown-up acts with the ease that earlier generations of same-age females did things like hopscotch. Given more thought, however, the choice of director makes perfect sense, as Hardwicke showed—in both Thirteen and her Lords of Dogtown—an impeccable ability to evoke the conflicting emotions and sensitivities of young people. Who better, then, to show us what Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a teenager living in dangerous, unsettling times, felt and did when told that she was to become mother to the son of God, the centerpiece of The Nativity Story?

The wonderful thing about The Nativity Story is how it gets us to see beyond the simple, straightforward narrative of the Gospel, to a point where the story of the birth of Jesus is part of a greater narrative encompassing Roman occupation, the grim survival of agrarian Israelites, the mysticism of the Magi, and, above all, the promise of hope and deliverance. For instance, we forget (or never knew), that in Mary’s time, being betrothed meant being a wife in all ways except sex, and that for one whole year she was to remain with her family before joining her husband in bed and home. Obviously, Mary’s pregnancy must have caused quite a scandal, being a sin that could have, by law and through an accusation by Joseph, have led to her death by stoning. In this context, the character of Joseph, known to us simply as the carpenter who led Mary to Bethlehem, takes on greater depth; Hardwicke and screenwriter Mike Rich take advantage of this element of drama. It would be easy to depict Joseph as dumb or weak or merely complacent, but the moviemakers, along with actor Oscar Isaac, dig deeper, uncovering his humanity.

On hand to further humanize the characters that viewers learned in Sunday school are Ciarán Hinds, as a paranoid King Herod; Eriq Ebouaney, Nadim Sawalha and Stefan Kalipha as the Three Wise Men; and the radiant Shohreh Aghdashloo as Elizabeth, who became the mother of John the Baptist in a miraculous pregnancy that slightly predated her cousin Mary’s.

While the movie doesn’t challenge the assumptions of believers, it does provide a refreshing sense of realism to the story of the nativity. I was initially worried when I heard that this movie was being made, being of the mindset that too often we need some sort of proof of things that are perhaps left best to faith and/or imagination. Would this Nativity Story be graphic with things like, well, the incarnation? Hardwick avoids this major ick factor (on a number of levels), instead parlaying the aspects of the story that rely heavily on faith with sensitivity and understatement. Her focus is largely on the evolution of Mary from a wistful teenager resentful at her family for an arranged marriage, to someone full of wonder and fear at what the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) imparts to her, to a resolute mother-to-be strong enough to rely on her faith. Nonbelievers—those who even go to this movie—will be dismissive of both the premise and the plot, but viewers will be treated with a decidedly intelligent, tasteful retelling that provides flesh and humanity to the holy.

 Fuzzy Liberation

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus

Directed by Steven Shainberg

As a photographer, Diane Arbus was drawn to the unusual and the unsettling. Her most famous images are stark black-and-white depictions of people somehow removed from the mainstream: transvestites, giants, nudists. Even those subjects possessed of a more familiar difference—identical twins, say—are captured in such a way as to highlight their curiousness. Fans of her work see in her photos warmth, playfulness and a nonjudgmental acceptance; detractors, an exploitive—even crass—perversity. Director Steven Shainberg’s “imaginary portrait” of the photographer, Fur, will almost certainly receive equally mixed reactions.

The movie offers a thin sliver of Arbus’ chronology: just three months in 1958. We watch Diane (Nicole Kidman) literally chafing as assistant to her fashion-photographer husband, Allan (Ty Burrell). As portrayed here, Diane is the embodiment of the repressed ’50s housewife. She is meek and unfulfilled creatively, professionally and sexually. Her family cannot understand her awkward dissatisfaction: Her father, a wealthy furrier, mutters, “What now?” as Diane weeps under questioning about her professional contributions to Allan’s craft; Allan, otherwise kind and supportive, is merely bemused when Diane kisses him with unexpected passion; even her daughters, Diane says, think she’s strange. At one point, Diane is driven to her apartment’s balcony to loose her buttons and expose her corseted self to the indifferent city. You need no narrative genius to see where this is going:

Cue the mysterious stranger.

Though Shainberg and writer Erin Cressida Wilson worked from Patricia Bosworth’s biography of Arbus, Fur is not a traditional biopic—it’s an imaginary portrait, remember. So, it’s appropriate that the mysterious stranger is more dreamlike than dreamy. Robert Downey Jr. plays new—and wholly fictional—neighbor Lionel Sweeney. Lionel is, if not “the,” at least “a” dog-faced boy. The technical term is hypertrichosis, and it’s a funny if none-too-subtle juxtaposition to Diane’s ostensibly smooth-surfaced, dipilitated life to date (and an ironic comment on her father’s trade and the source of his wealth). Lionel is the mythical hairy man, the wild man, though played with civility and more restraint than is Downey’s habit. The love affair that Diane begins is with her own vital, creative energy.

It’s not a particularly novel idea, the external personification of the artistic urge, of course. Actually, it’s ancient. But the filmmakers don’t seem to be taking themselves too, too seriously, so for a while it’s fun. Emotive, if leading, camera work and a clever use of set design and color give the film a Coen-brothers feel. In fact, the filters through which Arbus’ story is told—Alice in Wonderland and a kind of low-rent Freudian dream analysis—are Coenesque, as well.

So, in as far as Fur is the story of an artist’s initial embrace of her muse, it’s fine. However, it would be as easy and appropriate to take a darker view of Arbus’ psychology. The photographer killed herself at 48 by overdosing on barbiturates and cutting her wrists. In fairness, there are very faint suggestions that all will not be well. But by framing Arbus’ story as one primarily of liberation, the filmmakers avoid exactly the kind of complication and ambiguity that make their subject’s work compelling.

—John Rodat


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