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On the Screen: It’s the nativity story, but not as you know it

Journey to Bethlehem

DAVID ADAMS watches the new film telling the story of the birth of Christ…

Journey to Bethlehem (AU – PG/UK – PG /US – PG)

In a Word: Exuberant

Journey to Bethlehem

Fiona Palermo stars as Mary and Milo Manheim as Joseph in ‘Journey to Bethlehem’.

There’s been a number of films over the years which have attempted to capture the Gospel story of the birth of Christ on screen with, it has to be said, varying degrees of success.

Journey to Bethlehem opts for a new approach, eschewing the traditional narrative approach to present the story as something of a Disneyesque musical. It’s a bold move but one that generally works with some strong songs and colourful choreography which unpack some of the story’s highlights.

 “Journey to Bethlehem opts for a different approach, presenting the story as a musical. It’s a bold move but one that generally works with some strong songs and colourful choreography which unpack some of the story’s highlights.”

Fiona Palermo, who plays Mary, and Milo Manheim (Joseph) are well cast as is the supporting ensemble which includes Antonio Banderas as a delightfully villianous Herod and Omid Djalili as the fond-of-his food, map-reading wise man, Melchior.

There’s much humour – the Magi are a particular focus as is the angel Gabriel (played by Christian rapper Lecrae) – and it’s a slickly constructed production, well edited, with some great sets and scenery.

What doesn’t work so well are the plot changes. From the get-go, it’s clear that there will be some creative “filling-in-the-gaps” of the story – in a modern twist, Mary, for example, is portrayed as resisting the idea of getting married and expressing a desire to become a teacher.

Which works fine. To a point. But Swedish writer-director Adam Anders and co-writer Peter Barsocchini go much further than merely filling in the blanks. We see a character who’s not even in the Gospel accounts of the story – Herod Antipater, Herod’s son (played by Joel Smallbone, better known as one half of Christian pop duo for KING + COUNTRY) – become the driver of a narrative thread in which he, keen to impress dad, obsessively seeks out the child the three Magi have come looking for.

So much so, that by the end, the quest almost overshadows the main event itself, the birth of Jesus. The focus on Antipater also means some other key events end up rather truncated – the shepherds and the Magi are merged into one group, for example.

The ultimate test of whether such changes are good is whether they enhance the story and the overall impact of the film. That’s not the case here – the addition of Antipater’s subplot serve simply to distract, reducing the story into a good guy vs bad guy plot. While the changes don’t reach the ridiculousness of 2014’s Noah, it does mean this film is unlikely to be one that become must-see viewing at Sunday schools (after all, who wants to spend time explaining that no, Herod Antipas, doesn’t appear in the Bible story and, no, you can’t play him in this year’s Nativity play?). 

Still, if you don’t find the plot changes too grating (and one wonders why, when the film opens with the declaration that it’s a retelling of the “greatest story ever told”, they had to be made at all?), Journey to Bethlehem is a lively, family-friendly introduction to something resembling the Biblical accounts of the birth of Christ with some decent song-and-dance numbers thrown in.




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