A first-century story with 21st-century sensibilities

A review of Journey to Bethlehem

Boy meets girl: Their eyes lock over a spilled basket of fruit at a market. There’s an immediate frisson of attraction quickly followed by teasing banter, and the girl flounces off, having stuffed a fig in the boy’s mouth.

It sounds like the start of any number of Disney-style romances, but this is the first meeting of Mary and Joseph – you know, the Mary and Joseph, parents of the Son of God.

Here’s the set-up: In Nazareth, Mary’s father Jacob tells her she is to be betrothed to a boy recently arrived from Bethlehem whom she has never met. Mary is outraged because she wants to be a teacher and, besides, she would like to choose the man she will marry. She’s volubly defiant – why did her father teach her the Scriptures if she was just going to be a wife?

But when her father insists, Mary obeys with as much grace as she can muster.

There follows a song-and-dance routine in which Mary and her sisters Deborah (played by Moriah Smallbone) and Rebekah (Stephanie Gil) tease Mary for being so contrary and speculate on how handsome her husband is going to be.

Despite taking creative licence with what the Bible leaves out, the film stays on message in its essentials.

This is a Nativity story you have never seen before, with insanely catchy pop songs that will play in your head for days afterwards. And even with its predictable 21st-century sensibilities, I found this a highly enjoyable offering as a Christmas movie for all the family. Despite its excursions into comedy – especially with the buffoonish Three Wise Men – it sticks to Scripture when it matters.

For example, when the Angel Gabriel (played by rapper Lecrae) comes to visit Mary, he stumbles as he practises his lines then bumps his head on the lintel to her room. But when Mary awakes and he transmits his message from God, the words are faithful to the biblical account.

Mary and Joseph in Journey to Bethlehem

Joseph (Milo Manheim) and Mary (Fiona Palomo) in Journey to Bethlehem.

So despite taking creative licence with what the Bible leaves out, the film stays on message in its essentials. We have no doubt that this is the story of the birth of the Son of God and Mary fully understands the sacred responsibility she has been given.

“How can I be carrying your son when I need you to carry me?” she sings pitifully as she is sent away by her incredulous family to visit her cousin Elizabeth in Hebron.

Writer, director and co-composer, Adam Anders, is a Swedish-born pastor’s son who has built a highly successful career in Hollywood in music-led film and television such as Glee and High School Musical. A keen Christian, he had dreamed of making this movie for 17 years. The quality of the nine pop songs in this film is undeniable, which can be credited partly to the collaboration with talented songwriter Nikki Anders, his wife of 26 years.

Anders sees this love story as the original Romeo and Juliet.

The film would not be as charming as it is without the perfect casting of Mexican actress Fiona Palomo as Mary (who has the time-honoured full-lipped, doe-eyed beauty of a Disney princess), Milo Manheim as Joseph – an impish Aladdin lookalike – and Oscar-nominee Antonio Banderas, who has a roaring good time playing the jealous, evil king Herod. And he proves to be a fine vocalist in his annoyingly catchy big number, Good to be King.

His troubled son Antipater, played by Joel Smallbone, the Australian-born member of Christian band For King and Country, wrestles with his feelings as he is sent to root out the newborn Jesus and kill him. Of course, we know how it ends, but the suspense comes from seeing how they get there.

Then we have the comic relief in the Three Wise Men, a sort of three Stooges act that will give children a lot of laughs. I particularly enjoyed the great sport they had with the idea and sound of myrrh in some very clever lyrics.

For me, one of the most moving scenes is a highly choreographed sequence where two Josephs spar with each other in a song called The Ultimate Deception. After finding out Mary is pregnant and being urged to break off the betrothal, he feels torn in two, between trust and suspicion, love and honour, before an angel voice tells him to go to Mary.

Mary and Joseph in Journey to Bethlehem

Mary (Fiona Palomo) and Joseph (Milo Manheim) in Journey to Bethlehem. Sony Pictures

In an interview, Adam Anders told me he saw this love story as the original Romeo and Juliet. “This is a forbidden love. He should have left her. She should have been stoned. He took her stain upon him and his family name stayed with her. It’s an amazing story that nobody talks about.” Well, in this movie, we see the agonies Mary and Joseph went through and feel with them their deep sense of joy at Jesus’ birth. “I think it’s beautiful and powerful, and I think it will leave people with a sense of all of what God has done for us,” says Anders.

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