The Nativity (1910)

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*. Christianity, unlike other religions of the book, has always embraced images of the divine (albeit with a few iconoclastic interruptions). This has given rise to a lot of Western art’s greatest hits, as well as an ungodly amount of trash and commercial crap. In the latter category go most Biblical spectacles, and pretty much anything to do with Christmas holidays.
*. That said by way of introduction, this short film isn’t really a “spectacle,” being a one-reeler with a limited budget. Herod’s throne room is particularly unimpressive, undistinguished by anything more than what appears to be a lion-skin rug. And the location backdrops barely rise above high-school set decorations. Those palm trees! That sphinx!

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*. I mentioned Western art’s greatest hits. There’s always a tendency for Bible films to be drawn toward this visual tradition. Mel Gibson, for example, consciously mined it in The Passion of the Christ. Here again we’re very much in the world of staged artwork. Without any title cards, or even a title for that matter, you’d still be able to identify most of what’s going on.
*. There is, however, an impressive development of depth of field for a series of what are fairly static theatrical tableaux.

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*. Animals are a director’s nightmare. The docile and sleepy sheep in the first scene here are well behaved to the point of appearing tranquilized. I wonder if they were. The camels that bring the wise men to Herod seem more recalcitrant. But camels are like that, aren’t they? Such ungainly beasts out of their native element.
*. Feuillade was still working on developing a sense of film narrative. This is a short film going over a very familiar series of events and yet I still found it a bit hard to follow. There’s no strong link of cause and effect between the different scenes, Feuillade just shows us one thing happening and then another. Perhaps he felt he didn’t need to explain what was going on, but I think it more likely that he just wasn’t there yet.
*. Commerce and religion. Is there a real spiritual sensibility at work here? Is this film an act of faith? Or is it just a much-loved story tricked out with some primitive effects (like the appearance of the chorus of angels at the beginning), in order to take advantage of the public’s interest in the new technology?
*. I’m not sure how you could tell. Spirituality in film is hard to do: the very nature of the medium works against you. (Much the same has been said about making anti-war films.) But there’s more to religion than religious feeling. There are conventions and public rituals and mythologies. What’s interesting, at least to me, is how in early films like this you can already see the affinity between Christianity and a new form of popular art.

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