Danielle M. Peters, S.T.D.
Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Institute for Church Life,
University of Notre Dame
The most recent film on the Blessed Virgin, Mary of Nazareth, directed by Giacomo Campiotti, chronicles the life of the Our Lady from early childhood to the Resurrection of her Son Jesus. It has received many endorsements and may well be counted among the classics.
In his remarks after viewing the movie, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI pointed out that “it is not easy to characterize the figure of any mother, because the riches of the maternal life are difficult to describe, but this is even more challenging when it comes to the Mary of Nazareth, who is the mother of Jesus, the Son of God made man.” Thus it is with Campiotti’s production. Like most cinematic Marian narratives, this latest motion picture draws heavily from Holy Scripture, thus presenting, in Benedict XVI’s words, a “respectful approach to the life of the Virgin Mary.” In addition, numerous scenes stem from apocryphal sources, such as Mary’s presentation in the temple, or from legends, as for example that Mary wove Jesus’ seamless robe, which are not foreign to a Catholic audience. However, any screenwriter confronted with the challenge to fashion an original work of art needs to creatively balance the authentic historical sources with his own vision of the plot. This newest film on Our Lady is no exception.
Its Italian director implemented abundant symbolic scenes and gestures in the originally 200-minute film (cut to 153 minutes for the English version). These imaginative visuals allow the onlooker a glimpse into the spiritual battle raging in the fullness of time (Gal 4:4) with Mary and her Son at the center. We identify three categories reflecting the director’s artistic liberty which help him attend to (1) the person and mission of Mary of Nazareth; (2) the “mystery of Mary”; and (3) the viewer’s pondering heart.
The Person and Mission of Mary of Nazareth
Campiotti’s Mary of Nazareth (Alissa Jung) is no conventional woman. Contrary to the laws and customs of her people, according to which a woman was defined either as the daughter of her father or as the wife of her husband, Mary appears as a self-possessed woman whose sole desire was to fulfill God’s wish, no matter the cost. Thus she abides by the regulations and duties of her people as long as it does not interfere with her commitment to her Son.
We learn that she has cast an eye on the young carpenter Joseph (Luca Marinelli) and that she is attracted to his virtuous life. Gladly she accepts Joseph’s proposal to be his wife without consulting her father. The Annunciation scene depicts the young woman, betrothed to Joseph, dressed in white long garments and a white veil, symbol of virginity. She is kneading dough and her smile betrays the bliss of a young bride. The angel, portrayed as a young female with a male voice, does not interrupt or scare her in the least. Quite the contrary, upon seeing the angel she radiates tranquil joy and listens with holy expectation to his message. She remains calm even when asking the well-known “How can this be …?” She apparently knows that the child of her womb is the long-expected “Messiah, the Savior of us all.” She cites Isaiah 7:14 and Micah 5:12 and applies the periscopes to herself. Against the will of her worried parents and perplexed fiancé she embarks on her journey to Ain Karem to aid her cousin Elizabeth. What appears to be the stubbornness of a teenager is in actuality submission to an inner intuition which contradicts reason and the custom of her people.
As the child in her womb grows, the expectant mother is seen continuously cradling and communing with him. He is her support as she meets the reproach of her parents and the rage of Joseph in reaction to her by now advanced pregnancy. With an amazing self-assuredness Mary shares with them the message of the Angel; yet she is not the least disappointed in their lack of faith, nor does she feel rejected by their accusations. She bravely walks through town cradling her unborn baby and smiling with compassion at those who despise her. She is the one who takes the reluctant Joseph by the hand to perform the traditional dance at their wedding feast. Against the will of her parents and husband she insists on accompanying Joseph to Bethlehem. Ignoring Joseph’s hesitation, she shares her newborn Son with the group of shepherds allowing the men, women, and children a personal encounter with the Divine Child.
Mary takes an active part in Jesus’ (Andreas Pietschmann) adult life as well. We see her in the women’s section of the synagogue and gathered with the multitudes for the Sermon on the Mount. She is present at the house of Simon and happy to welcome her Son with his disciples to her home. She appears with Joseph at the wedding at Cana but is invited by Jesus to join the bridal round dance while Joseph happily looks on.
Up to this point Mary is driven by her motherly intuition and concerns for Jesus. She admits to Joseph that she misses him and she wishes that “he’d be back in my womb. He would be safe there.” At a coincidental encounter with Jesus in the desert she expresses her sorrow at the prospect of never seeing him again. Yet, the mother-son relationship takes on a new dimension when Mary intuits the couple’s need for wine at the wedding of Cana. The cinematic depiction places her in between Jesus and the wedding guests. Jesus cannot resist her compassionate plea and with a considerate nod works his first sign. In the days following this unheard of event, Mary blames herself for “forcing Jesus to come to the open.” It is an act for which she takes responsibility. At the same time she grows in the awareness of her mission next to her Son. Perhaps the crimson-red seamless garment she had woven for him is a sign for their new relationship. As he dons his tunic, Mother and Son wear the same color combination, red and blue, conceivably also a subtle hint at their common destiny. Mary consciously takes up her new mission as her Son’s disciple after Joseph’s death. She rebukes family members who inform her that Jesus “is not your son anymore” affirming “He is my Lord!” Her pure and unobtrusive glance compels even the vulgar guardian on Golgotha to disobey all orders thus allowing the grieving mother to be near her crucified Son.
Mary’s new mission as handmaid of the Lord extends to all members of Christ, uniquely portrayed in the prodigal Mary Magdalene, who finds her way to Jesus through Mary. On the day of the Last Supper, during their last encounter before the Passion, Jesus emphatically reminds his mother of her new role. Alluding to his Apostles and to Mary Magdalene, he urges her to remain strong because “they need your faith!” Referring to this emotional scene Benedict XVI emphasized: “She is a mother who desired to keep her Son with her, but she knows he is God. Her faith and love are so great, she accepts her part in his mission.” After Jesus’ death Mary exercises her role as she calms the broken-hearted, recreant, and fearful disciples. They listen to her as she assures them that he will return.
As handmaid of the Lord, Mary’s life is deeply interwoven with that of her Son as she embarks with him on his way of the Cross. Like Jesus she wrestles with God. She offers herself to die in Jesus’ place and with her Son she surrenders him to the Father for the salvation of all. She physically feels the pangs Jesus endures during his passion; should her fainting be seen as an alignment to her Son’s falling? Or is it a sign that she needed support from John and Mary Magdalene? Nonetheless, the grieving handmaid repeats her unwavering “Here I am…” after Jesus entrusts John to her care. And when she receives the dead body of her Master we sense that she is again sustained by the fabric of her faith as she utters under tears: “He will live.”
Their very last encounter depicts Mary and Jesus after the resurrection. Both are clad in white. As she utters once more her “Here I am” Mary appears to be of the same age as Jesus, perhaps an indication of the new dimension of her motherhood which she exercises beside her Son throughout eternity.
The “Mystery of Mary”
From the beginning to the end of the narrative, Mary is a pondering person veiled in silence and mystery. The motion picture contains elements of rich symbolism which are powerful catechetical tools to gain a fuller understanding of the person and vocation comprising the mystery of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Thus, the movie begins with a scene reminiscent of the massacre of the innocent children shortly after the birth of the Christ-child (Mt 2:16ff). This time, however, soldiers ravage houses and streets in search for little girls in order to find Mary among them. Although this scene can neither be found in the apocryphal nor other related literature, it sets the plot surrounding Mary’s person. Her parents’ reaction after the horrific event resembles the leitmotif of all that will unfold. Having witnessed that their little daughter was immune to the dog’s smell which ordinarily “no heir of Eve can escape” they conclude: “Mary is a mystery; a mystery too great for us.” In the appraisal of their daughter, Joachim and Anne hint at Mary’s privileged origin (sinlessness) and divine election, her Immaculate Conception. In support of this intuition we observe the child Mary shortly thereafter, pulling her parents towards the temple. Not even the tears of her mother can stop her from running to the High Priest standing at the entrance of the temple. The 6th chapter of the Protogospel of St. James (written about 145 AD) records Anne’s promise to the nine-month-old Mary: “As the Lord my God lives, you will not walk again on this earth till I bring you into the temple of the Lord.” The following chapter relates that Anne and Joachim presented their three-year-old daughter in the temple where Mary dances on the third step of the altar and “all the house of Israel loved her.” Though a legendary account (from which arose the feast of Mary’s Presentation celebrated on November 21), the story shows that, even in her childhood, Mary was completely dedicated to God and separated from all worldly influence.
The purity of her soul places Mary in stark contrast to other women, who are all daughters of Eve. The motion picture succeeds in showing the contrast between her, the New Eve, and Anne, Elizabeth, the women of Nazareth, and above all the heinous Herodias and misguided Mary Magdalene.
Fast forward as the narration introduces us to the teenager Mary tending sheep. She appears quite content, her gaze directed heavenwards and totally unaware of the approaching snake, symbol of the devil that is unable to harm her. Joining her is a young Joseph whose attraction for Mary radiates from his glance and gestures. According to Jewish customs he had previously mustered his courage to seek Joachim’s permission to speak to his daughter which he received from Anne instead. The Protogospel of James, some Fathers of the Church, as well as theologians to the present day have speculated that, during her time in the temple, Mary may have taken a vow of virginity, thereby renouncing marriage. Chapter 8 of the Protogospel of James presents Joseph as a widower with children, “chosen to take the Virgin of the Lord, to keep her for him.” Yet nothing in the movie’s ensuing dialogue between the young master builder and Mary suggests that their relationship would be different from that of other couples. However, their love and commitment to each other is severely put to the test due to God’s intervention. After the Annunciation, Mary’s sole purpose and focus of life is directed to the service of the Lord. Her initial Yes, joyfully uttered in response to the Angel’s message becomes her cantus firmus loyally repeated throughout the joyful, luminous, sorrowful, and glorious events of her earthly journey. To this Pope emeritus Benedict XVI remarked: “Mary of Nazareth is the woman of ‘Here I am’, giving herself completely over to the Divine Will. … In this ‘yes’, which is repeated even as she suffers the loss of her Son, she finds an overwhelming and profound happiness.”
As she tries to understand and embrace her mission in the service of her Son, she is unable to share her inmost feelings with Joseph. For some, Joseph’s rage upon seeing his pregnant betrothed may be difficult to reconcile with a “just and upright man” to whom God entrusts the future of the “child and his Mother.” Yet, traditionally Joseph is not portrayed as a young man as in Campiotti’s narration. Unlike the old widower with children from the Protogospel, our young carpenter expresses his disappointment by giving in to his human emotions with a temper tantrum. Nonetheless he, being drawn into Mary’s mystery, comes to understand and grow in his role as guardian of mother and child: the tender, loving dialog of the young couple as they approach their wedding night reveals their mutual agreement that “a family like ours” is different. The audience is free to interpret this subtle reference to Mary’s permanent virginity as Benedict XVI seems to have done: “Joseph, Mary’s husband, a man of flesh and blood … is called upon to believe in the uniqueness of Mary’s destiny, and to forego many of the rights and privileges of marriage.”
From then on, we observe Joseph take the lead of his family. He protects his baby Son from being massacred. The attentive onlooker will notice a white lamb in the place where the family has spent the night which may well be an allusion for the Lamb of God who this time escaped His murders. During Jesus’ public life Joseph steps humbly in the background allowing Mary to assume her new mission.
The Viewer’s Pondering Heart
Finally, Campiotti intersperses a few allegorical scenes with apparently no explicit meaning. Admittedly, some puzzles are solved when watching the 200-minute Italian or Spanish version of the film. On the other hand, the truncated script could be an invitation to the viewer to enter Mary’s school where she teaches us to contemplate God’s puzzling interventions in our own life. Possible lessons may include the episode of the three-year-old Jesus plunging in the water with his mother while still in Egypt. Both are clad in white and surrounded by the sun. One is reminded of Proverbs 8:24-31; or perhaps of Jesus baptizing his mother? The audience is free to wonder about the meaning of this interaction and of the boy’s light blonde locks while otherwise portrayed with dark straight hair. And still more, who can explain the symbolic significance of the wound on the boy’s forehead? Moreover, what are we to make of the parallel scenes at the court of Herod? What may be the role of Queen Herodias? Is she the devil personified when she tempts Jesus in the desert? Or is her dominant character an example of the influence women can exert over men? While Herodias uses her charm and beauty to lead to destruction, Mary in stark contrast places her femininity and charism at the service of the Lord and his mission.
In conclusion, director and cast are to be commended for a notably stunning portrait of the life of Mary of Nazareth, which is in all its aspects in accordance with Catholic teaching on the Blessed Virgin Mary. The motion picture succeeds in introducing us to the cultural and social environment in which Mary lived out her earthly existence. Furthermore, its rich symbolism unveils some of the subterranean aspects of her vocation and mission. Thus Mary of Nazareth is paradigm and teacher for all who wish to pattern their life in the spirit of her repeated declaration, “Here I am, Lord!”