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(photo credit: AP/New Line Cinema)
For the first time in its history, the Vatican hosted the world premiere of a feature film Sunday, with proceeds from the one-time event to be donated to a school in Israel.
Some 7,000 people attended the Vatican's screening of The Nativity Story, a re-enactment of the birth of Jesus that opens in the United States on Friday and around much of the world during the month of December.
The screening, which was held in Pope Paul VI Hall, was attended by The Nativity Story's director, Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen), actors Shohreh Aghdashloo (The House of Sand and Fog) and Keisha Castle-Hughes, who plays Mary in the new film and was one of Hollywood's youngest ever Oscar nominees for her work in 2002's Whale Rider. The event served as a benefit for the construction of a school in Mughar, a northern Israeli town that's home to a diverse population of Christian, Muslim, and Druse residents and is located roughly 40 kilometers from Nazareth. The city was among the Israeli towns hit by missile fire from Lebanon during Israel's summer war with Hizbullah.
"We are very very proud of The Nativity Story and extremely grateful that the Vatican has embraced the film in this way," said New Line Cinema executive Rolf Mittweg. "We believe it's the perfect venue to present the film's universal message of hope and faith, a message we are sure will resonate around the world."
Planned with the help of a number of bodies within the Vatican, including the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Vatican Film Library, the screening follows the premiere of several television movies that have also made their debut at the Vatican. Though Pope Benedict XVI did not attend the screening himself, the Vatican was represented at the event by officials including Archbishop John Foley, the chief of the Vatican's social communications office.
Even before its makers knew where the film would premiere, they wanted it to reflect the Nativity story's Holy Land setting and history. "We were looking for epic intimacy," said Hardwicke, who worked on production design in the desert for another film, 1999's critically acclaimed Three Kings. "The story is grand and sweeping, stretching across breathtakingly beautiful terrain, yet we want to feel deeply what [Mary and Joseph] felt, each of their physical and emotional obstacles, in a very personal, visceral way."
Hardwicke and the film's producers visited Israel to scout locations, traveling between Nazareth and Bethlehem to look for places where they could shoot the film. What they found, Hardwicke said, was an area that had already become too modern to serve as the backdrop for their film.
Their research for the movie was aided significantly, however, by the non-profit Nazareth Village, a replica located near Nazareth of what the town would have looked like during the time of Jesus. While in Israel, Hardwicke visited homes, underground cisterns, a mule-powered olive press and a first-century synagogue as part of her research for The Nativity Story.
The location ultimately selected for much of the shooting was the same small Italian town used for an even higher profile cinematic rendering of Jesus' life - 2004's controversial The Passion of the Christ. Nativity Story filmmakers felt the town bore a striking resemblance to parts of Jerusalem, and that the landscape has the same feel as the land around Nazareth, full of rolling green hills, protruding limestone rocks and ancient olive groves.
"Matera is more authentic than the actual sites now," says Hardwicke. "Nazareth is a modern town, and so is Jerusalem."
In a historic olive grove half an hour outside Matera, production designer Stefano Maria Ortolani recreated Nazareth, building the ancient city from scratch. Important community institutions of the period such as an olive press, a wine press and a synagogue were built near the well at the center of the mock Nazareth, just as they would have been in ancient times.
Three consultants from Nazareth Village served as advisors on The Nativity Story, traveling to Italy to educate the actors and production team in a "Nazareth Boot Camp." Cast members were given lessons in how to bake bread, milk goats, press olive oil, plant wheat and use ancient tools. The search for authenticity went even further for actor Oscar Isaac, who portrays Joseph and helped in the construction of his character's home.
"The idea was to really recreate the conditions and situations of the time," Hardwicke said. "We were meticulous about it, and the Israeli consultants gave us a lot of information that helped the movie and the acting."
Bethlehem, meanwhile, was constructed next to a series of caves in Matera, with the film's art department and visual effects team also transforming part of the site into what's now Jerusalem's Old City.
After five weeks of shooting in Italy, the production team returned to the Middle East - this time to Morocco, where another unit had been working on another of the film's key sets. For the remainder of the shoot, other existing sets were modified to become Herod's palace and the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Other Moroccan locations were used to shoot Mary and Joseph's journey and to trace the path of the Magi through the Middle East.
Hardwicke said she relished the opportunity to travel Israel and other spots on the Mediterranean to make her latest film. "The best artists in history have been inspired by this story - musicians, composers, sculptors, painters," she said. "It was an amazing gift to have the chance to do an interpretation of my own."