Thanks to Sister Margaret Kerry, FSP, for being a guest reviewer.
A new musical retelling of the classic Bible story, Journey to Bethlehem opens in theaters November 10, 2023. Using original pop songs and familiar melodies, the movie surprisingly does not follow a classic telling. I found the official trailer appealing. The move surprised me. For more information on the film, visit their website here.
The film makers attempt to incorporate light hearted comedy into the story. Perhaps children will find it engaging. The three magi (Geno Segers, Omid Djalili, and Rizwan Manji) riff off each other, a donkey prevents Joseph (Milo Manheim) from seeing Mary (Fiona Palomo) and protects her from a Roman soldier, and Roman soldiers dance (very well I might add) while Herod (Antonio Banderas) wonders what they are doing. These may work in another story but we have come to expect our Christmas stories to be inspiring and we expect a degree of respect for each of the characters. Mary presents with the dilemmas of a modern teenager more than that of a humble young woman awaiting the Messiah. Joseph, a handsome young man, hopes to find a good match, but he is already promised to someone. Who? He doesn’t know.
Milo Manheim as Joseph in "Journey to Bethlehem." © 2023 Sony Pictures Affirm Films. All Rights Reserved.
One of my favorite mysteries of the gospel of Luke is Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. It takes place in the film without any interaction between the cousins. A completely unexpected visitor, Herod the Great’s son, Antipas (Joel Smallbone), but in the film called Anitpater, shows up to find out if Mary is hiding there. He also shows up in Bethlehem on his quest to find and kill the child. Astonishingly, in another broad turn of historic events, he protects the new born Jesus from Roman soldiers. This is followed by Joseph’s dream that they must go to Egypt until Herod the Great (Antipater's father) is dead. Everyone in the stable scene is there to see them off.
Joel Smallbone as Antipater in "Journey to Bethlehem." © 2023 Sony Pictures Affirm Films. All Rights Reserved.
So does anything work in this film?
What works is that the moviegoer is totally taken aback by this unexpected retelling of the Christmas story. It does throw us out of any complacency we have been unaware of after reading and hearing this marvelous gospel so many times. Mary and Joseph struggle with the news that Mary is expecting. This is the first time I felt that struggle. Ana (Maria Pau Pigem) and Joachim (Antonio Cantos) and Joseph’s parents also can’t figure out what to do except tell their children to break off the marriage. Mary is depicted as having two sisters in this film. They sing and dance about her coming marriage jitters. I never really thought about Mary having brothers or sisters. Only her parents are written about and that in the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James (written around A.D. 150). The Archangel Gabriel’s apparition is unusual. At first Gabriel (Lecrae) can’t seem to remember what is to be announced to Mary. Gabriel scared me. That works to portray a startled Mary – but not in a good way. There were two or three moments in the film I felt inspired. One was the shepherds singing led by a young shepherdess and the birth of Jesus. At this point Joseph realizes that he is chosen to care for the Son of God and prepares the stable. The movie confuses a lot of the story but it does get this right – Jesus is God incarnate.
FionaPalomo as Mary and Milo Manheim as Joseph in "Journey to Bethlehem." © 2023 Sony Pictures Affirm Films. All Rights Reserved.
If you want to see Journey to Bethehem I suggest using it as a film for Cinema Divina.* Adults who want to bring teens or children to see the movie would do well to see the movie first. Everyone will benefit from reading the scripture before viewing the film.
The gospel writer Luke reminds us that his account has “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (Read Luke Chapters 1 and 2). After viewing the film read the scripture passages again. If you do this with a group of adults read it aloud. Then share your impressions. Identify what was left out of the film and how it was retold in a musical film. Was it necessary to change the story? What does that say to us about the era we live in? What about the way we expect the message to be told? How might we tell the gospel story to others today?
It is commendable that Sony Entertainment is trying to create and support faith-based films. Their faith-based moniker is Affirm Films. As much as they would like to get ratings to encourage them in this enterprise Christians must be ready to also ask that the story, no matter how creatively told, also be true. In this case there is historic and spiritual documentation for the truth of Christmas. As teachers of the faith exercise caution. We don’t want our children to be confused about the story of salvation in which they are deeply embedded through baptism. We don’t want to give an alternate gospel to anyone who has not heard the message (cf. Gal. :8-9).
*In Cinema Divina the scriptures are read and meditated on before watching a film. They are read again through the story of the film. Then re-read at the end of the film leading to a time of mediation. A sharing of the word follows. A period of contemplation invites us to action. St. Francis once said that "A single sunbeam is enough to drive away many shadows." Film projects a beam of light that traces our shadows on the screen. Through Cinema Divina we receive an invitation to recognize our human story, reflect on it with the gospel and sit with it in contemplation.