Media Notebook: Journey to Bethlehem

(OSV News) -- When viewing a filmed version of the Nativity, whether as part of a larger life of Christ or on its own, it's best to keep in mind that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are works of faith, not motion picture treatments. This means that all dramatic interpretations necessarily include non-Biblical elements. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be watchable.

Cue the extra donkeys, lowing oxen, sheep herds in all sizes, nameless bystanders, angels that fly and others that remain earthbound. Mary and Joseph have been depicted in a wide range of ages, but King Herod mostly remains predictably evil.

Happily pushing this envelope on all fronts is the new musical “Journey to Bethlehem” (Sony), directed by Adam Anders, who co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Barsocchini. Fiona Palomo is Mary, Milo Manheim is Joseph, the rapper Lecrae is the archangel Gabriel and Omid Djalili is a particularly comic Melchior, one of the Magi.

As for Antonio Banderas' Herod, his throne is encased in a giant stone lion's head that sometimes shoots flames. Bold and glossy and studded with cheerful production numbers, the movie as a whole has the look and sound of a lively pop-infused pageant, such as the ones televangelist Robert Schuller used to stage when he was in his prime.

Joseph wants to be an inventor and make things "that could change the world." He and Mary, portrayed here as teens, sing a duet in which each expresses doubts about marriage. Some of Mary’s friends remind her that the joys of married life include shopping.

Gabriel, beaming down to Earth, is a bit nervous and has to rehearse his lines before announcing to Mary, "You are more blessed than any other woman." The three Magi have an especially lively song and dance routine – with high-kicking, no less – during which they remind Herod, to his barely concealed chagrin, that the Christ child, "will reign forever and ever!"

Anders, the 48-year-old Swedish producer and composer ("Glee," "Rock of Ages"), whose father was a well-known gospel singer in Sweden, wouldn’t have it any other way. "This was an idea I couldn't let go of," he tells OSV News. He'd nursed the idea for 17 years, and had to plan the production carefully, since he only had 30 days to film it in Spain.

"It was very fast and very stressful," he recalls, especially since "there’s no overtime allowed in Spain." So if there was a problem with setting up a scene, "I had to find another way to solve it." The goal was always "a colorful, fresh family musical to celebrate what Christmas is about," made "for all denominations."

Anders’ favorite composition in the film is Mary’s emotional "Mother to a Savior and a King." He scouted locations in Israel before visiting Spain, where he found outdoor areas that look very similar to the Middle East. "A lot of the cast was local," he notes.

He saw King Herod as "a rock star of the age. I wanted him to be a total narcissist."

Small comedic moments throughout are very much intentional, Anders says. "You have to see what will engage an entire family. That means I can't be too serious all of the time. We were reverent when we needed to be." But retaining some humor – an unusual element in a Nativity picture – "was very important to me."

Anders also hopes audiences will respond to one of the moral lessons he tucked into the script: "God has bigger plans for you than you do for yourself." That includes his own career, in which he originally thought he would remain a bass player before he branched out into composing.

"We’re living in a very selfish time," Anders observed. So he hopes grown viewers and children, especially, will realize that in his film, "Everyone does something for someone else."

"If you sit down and watch the movie and have a good time, then I’m happy," he concludes.- - -Kurt Jensen is a guest reviewer for OSV News.