Fortunately, once the film moves into more familiar biblical territory, it settles down (mostly) and tries its best to give us a Mary who seems like a real everyday woman, and it falls on the shoulders of German born actress Alissa Jung to pull off the formidable task. Yes, this is another film which uses Western actors to portray middle-Eastern characters, but it’s not too distracting (though I’m pretty sure the child Jesus never had curly golden locks), since it’s a time honored tradition in western art to do so. Jung’s primary approach in portraying Mary is to have her go-to expression be that of a resigned, forbearing smile. When her parents understandably freak out over her unexpected pregnancy, Mary sheds a tear and then gives a little smile as if to say, “They’ll understand one day.” Which, of course, they did. When an angry Joseph offers not to formally accuse her of adultery (an instant death sentence at that time) because she’s obviously a lunatic whom he still loves (we’ve all been there), Mary momentarily looks fretful and then gives a little smile as if to say, “He’ll come around one day.” Which, of course, he did. When the neighbors in Nazareth stand off to the side refusing to take part in her and Joseph’s wedding celebration, Mary… well, you get the idea.
I’m sure it sounds as if I’m criticizing Jung’s performance, but I’m really not. If you’re going to accept the idea that Mary was sinless thanks to the grace of God (which, as a Catholic, I have no problem accepting), then that is, admittedly, one tough character for an actor to inhabit. Jung actually does fine as Mary, and there are times when the smile is absolutely perfect. I’m thinking in particular of the well-known scene from the gospels in which Mary tries to get in to see Jesus as he teaches and, rather than immediately allow her entrance, he launches instead into a theological sermon on “Who are my mother and my brothers?” As depicted in the film, Mary frowns in confusion at first, but then understanding creeps in and the smile emerges. When questioned how she can continue to follow her son on his travels after such an apparent slight, Mary answers simply, “He’s my Lord.” That’s the Mary I’ve come to know and love since my conversion.
Now, will the portrayal appeal to a broader audience, and not just fans of Mary like myself? That I can’t predict. In general movie terms, the production is slightly better than most television fare, but nowhere near the cinematic quality of something like The Passion of the Christ. The acting, especially Luca Marinelli as Joseph, is generally good, but occasionally some of the extras appear to forget just exactly what it is there supposed to be doing in certain scenes. And – let’s face it – the story is overly familiar (or it should be if you’ve been paying attention during Mass and faith formation). Still, the film does offer up a few nice surprises. For instance, having Jesus join in the dancing at the wedding in Cana seems obvious, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it on film before. It’s a nice touch.
All in all, Mary of Nazareth is a fine addition to the biblical film genre, and it does a fair job of putting a human face to the idealized image we’ve grown accustomed to. If you somehow manage to find it showing in one of its limited theatrical runs, or if you run across a screening at a local church, it’s definitely worth taking in. And go ahead and take your teenage daughter along with you – she just might appreciate it as well. (Though she may not admit it until she turns thirty.)