Grant thy reviewer the serenity to accept that "Mary, Mother of Jesus," airing tomorrow at 9 p.m. on Channel 4, isn't very good, the courage to say so, and the wisdom not to answer my phone for three days . . .
There is a powerful story to be told about the most revered woman in Christianity. A parable of hope and abiding faith, a feminist manifesto of strength, a mother's story of loss. But this movie doesn't tell any of these well, let alone in biblical proportions.
The movie purports to flesh out the icon. To show Mary less as the passive, quiescent recipient of God's holy visitation and reveal her passion and belief as an organic, driving part of Christianity.
For all that, it seems to suffer from a real crisis of faith. Executive-produced by Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Bobby Shriver, "Mary, Mother of Jesus," does not seem to have the strength of their convictions. We know this character is deeply felt, but she is not deeply rendered or realized. We want vision, interpretation, we want to step out on faith. But this Mary pulls back. Runs out of insight, and quotes Scripture by rote.
And Scripture is a poor substitute for script. The story closely follows the New Testament while taking dramatic license. Within the opening 20 minutes, a young Mary (Melinda Kinnaman) saves old women and children from Roman horsemen, staves off the execution of a Jewish countryman and questions God. "Why the suffering," Mary asks. "I beg you for an answer."
Still, when the Lord's messenger appears to tell her she will bear the Messiah, we are unconvinced. This "chosen among women" neither simmers with the righteous fever of the Holy Spirit nor is she a vision of serenity and still purpose. She's kind of namby-pamby.
In one scene, Mary is unable to stop a woman from being stoned as a Jezebel and is really bothered by this. "Scripture says to do justice but to love mercy," Mary says snappishly. As the future mother of The Way, The Truth, and The Light, shouldn't she have gotten a little more worked up? The older Mary, played by Pernilla August, who starred as Anakin Skywalker's mother in "The Phantom Menace," fares somewhat better. She struggles with the warring impulses of trying to protect her son, and surrender him to heavenly purpose. Her exchanges with a hunky Jesus (Christian Bale) demonstrate that it was her guidance and counsel that sustain the young savior as He grows into his divinity.
"Everything He is you made Him," says Mary's husband, Joseph, on his deathbed. And as Jesus's disciples abandon Him, Mary leans on God to help her stand with her son as He is crucified. From young innocent, she has been transformed into a Nazarene steel magnolia for the ages. You find yourself wishing the performance had been more evenly convincing.
Often biblical interpretations opt for spectacle over story. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In big-screen retellings such as "The Ten Commandments," and even in CBS's "Touched by an Angel," producers seem to understand that audiences tune in as the spirit moves them. We want lushness. Dramatic, ooo-aaah back-lighting and a chorus of heavenly hosts--all the devices that help our metaphysical flights of fancy. Employ technical wizardry. Call them miracles, and we will believe.
"Mary" opts for story over spectacle, but ends up being disappointingly light on each; too flimsy to sustain three dimensions.
As the movie ends, Mary turns to the camera and bids us "go out into the world . . . try to teach as He taught, live as He lived and love as He loved." The credits roll with a beautiful reading of Scripture and paintings of Mary and Christ from all over the world. The producers clearly seem to understand that the story of Mary offers comfort for a skittish populace at the brink of a new millennium.
They just don't make us believe it. . . . (Please don't smite me.)