On October 11, at the Metreon Theater in San Francisco, Ignatius Press sponsored a premiere screening of the film Mary of Nazareth. Originally released in 2012 as a two-part, 200-minute production for Italian TV, the film has been edited down to 153 minutes for theatrical release. Mary of Nazareth was directed by the Italian Giacomo Campiotti, whose other religious movies include Bakhita about St. Josephine Bakhita, and St. Giuseppe Moscati, about the Physician Saint of Naples. It was written by the Italian Francesco Arlanch, author of the screenplay for Restless Heart (about St. Augustine), Pius XII, and Pope John Paul II. Actors include the Germans Alissa Jung as Mary and Andreas Pietschmann as Jesus, and the Italian Luca Marinelli as Joseph.
The movie chronicles the life of Mary from just before the time of her Presentation at the Temple until the Resurrection. Much of Mary of Nazareth can be seen as a modern version of the “pious legends” of the Middle Ages. Like the pious legends, nothing in the movie contradicts Scripture, but it does contain scenes that are not in Scripture—things that a reasonable person realizes must have happened even if there is no record. Such things include the wedding of Mary and Joseph, Jesus as a boy falling and hurting himself, the death of Joseph, etc. Luca Marinelli is splendid as Joseph: young, masculine, kind, and, of course, just. When he requests permission from St. Joachim to speak to Mary for the first time, and meets with the familiar fatherly suspicion on Joachim’s part, we laugh, because we know the outcome, but we feel for the nervous young man at the same time. Joseph’s character grows the most in the movie, as he accepts, then loves, and finally, in his humility, even develops a sense of humor about his unprecedented situation. A seminarian who was in attendance at the premiere said, “That’s masculinity, right there!” Andreas Pietschmann is good as Jesus, strong and steady in an almost impossible role. Paz Vega is properly intense and passionate as Mary Magdalene. But this movie is all about Alissa Jung’s Mary.
Ms. Jung’s performance is radiant—like nothing I can remember seeing. She plays Mary with a mixture of sweetness, goodness, gentle strength, intelligence, and a complete trust that cannot be conveyed in words. That portrayal is maintained throughout the movie and yet Ms. Jung manages to elevate it in a number of scenes where our understanding of the Gospel is re-energized. Such high points are many: the aforementioned wedding of Mary and Joseph and the death of Joseph, but also the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, where Simeon recognizes Mary as the little girl from years before; the reverse Exodus of the Holy Family from Judea to Egypt; finally and above all how Mary’s unshakeable faith sheltered the newborn Church following the Crucifixion.
For me, Ms. Jung’s recitation of the Magnificat during her visit to her cousin Elizabeth, and the faces of her co-actors during the recitation, was breathtaking, and revealed Mary as the greatest of prophets. The performance will return to me whenever I read or hear that prayer from Luke. But I think any believing viewer will find a scene that speaks to them in a similar way.
As the film enters the period of Jesus’ ministry, the writer and director show some excellent creative judgment in making his teachings concrete. One example: the camera is focused on Mary’s hands as she adds salt to a loaf of bread she is preparing. The camera then cuts to Jesus, who is watching her hands, and he begins to teach, “You are the salt of the earth….” Later in the scene when Jesus tells the disciples, “You are the light of the world…,” he picks up a lamp from the table and moves it around to make his point.
Another example is the repentant Mary Magdalene, who, after being saved by Jesus from stoning, follows him from afar. She finally summons the courage to enter Simon’s house, where Jesus is, and anoints and washes his feet with her tears. Some of the disciples are scandalized. But the scene is immeasurably strengthened because as all of this takes place, Jesus is telling the parable of the return of the Prodigal Son.
Ms. Jung was in attendance for the screening, as was Father Donald Calloway of the Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary. Ignatius Press (which publishes Catholic World Report) had consulted with Father Calloway, a noted Mariologist, on whether to distribute the film in the US. Both took questions. I asked Ms. Jung how she prepared for such a role. She said, “I knew the story of Christ and Mary of course, but had not deeply thought about it. I approached the role with a lot of respect. I did a lot of reading. I slowly started to form the character of Mary who would appear in this movie. Mary is a person who is soft outside yet strong within. For me, one of the strongest conflicts in the movie is that Mary knows she is going to lose her son, but for something she believes in. Yet that does not diminish the pain in any way—because she is a mother. This really linked to my soul because I am a mother myself. Just the idea, as a mother, of losing your child is such a big, big pain you almost don’t need to act.” Ms. Jung also said that the actors were very concerned to portray the love in the family, and said that the actors fought for shooting that captured those relationships.
The film is not perfect. At least one loose end from the longer version—a previous meeting between Mary and Mary Magdalene—was not shown in the movie, so when the two women meet for the first time already knowing one another, the viewer is confused. More bothersome and inexplicable was the playing of a contemporary American song about Mary, to flashbacks from the movie, immediately following the credits. The song had no artistic or tonal relationship to the movie we had just seen, and the result was jarring. But the flaws are minor. The movie is a must-see for Christians. Ms. Jung’s performance sweeps all before it.
The film is not yet in theaters but is available for sponsored theatrical screenings. Visit www.maryfilm.com to learn more.