The Nativity (1910)
This early short from Louis Feuillade pre-dates his better-known crime serials and shows his sense that film can and should be wholesome and uplifting. It is one of many efforts to bring the Bible to the screen, and shows considerable production value, if not a lot of dramatic interest.
The movie begins by showing us a group of shepherds on a small set, dressed to look like a manger at night. Suddenly they awake and witness an angel, and soon a host of angels is playing trumpets to hail the arrival of the messiah. The shepherds fall on their knees to give thanks, then after the vision disappears they express their wonder and joy and set out into the night. The next scene shows Mary and Joseph and the child; interestingly their manger is behind a large stone arch, and includes a cow. We see the shepherds’ herds of sheep in the background as they arrive to worship the child. The next scene shows the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem as the three Magi arrive in a caravan with porters and camels. They approach Herod’s palace and gain admission from the soldiers on guard, while the camels squat down on the tiny set. They are shown into Herod’s throne room, where they convey the story of their vision and quest for the child. Herod sends them on their way as emissaries to represent him, but his wife and advisers seem to raise doubts in his mind. We return to the palace exterior set and see the caravan raise up and depart on its journey. Then, the Magi arrive at the cave-manger (sans camels) and kneel down before the baby Jesus, presenting him with their traditional gifts. Meanwhile, Herod and his wife are plotting on the roof terrace of their palace, and they decide upon the slaughter of the innocent, to prevent Christ’s growing up. An intertitle informs us that an angel has warned Mary and Joseph, and that they are fleeing to Egypt. We see a brief scene of their flight through the wilderness, and then their rest at the end of the journey, where they sleep against the Sphinx while their donkey grazes.
Biblical movies often have difficulty maintaining the dignity and seriousness of their subject matter while still being entertaining. Here, a lot of money (at least by the standards of 1910 production) was clearly spent on sets and costumes, but Feuillade seems to have had some difficulty with the script. He lingers on camels and sheep, and on large processions, but doesn’t show us everything we want to see. Specifically, although the plot hinges on the story of the slaughter of the innocent, no depiction of violence is shown at all. Apart from that, while we have the dramatic appearance of the angels to the shepherds, it seems like the more suspenseful vision, that of the angel warning Joseph to flee Bethlehem, would be a more powerful image. From a modern American perspective, it’s interesting that the story of Mary and Joseph taking refuge in a manger because of poverty and intolerant inn-keepers is skipped over, though this may have been typical of the French Catholic telling of the story at the time.
Director: Louis Feuillade
Starring: Renée Carl, Nadette Darson, Alice Tissot, Maurice Vinot
Run Time: 13 Min, 40 secs
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