Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary …

Catherine Hardwicke, just what is it about you making movies about 13-year-old Jewish girls?

No — these aren't Bat Mitzvah home movies, but a mitzvah of a different sort: Going to bat for the angst and anxiety of being a Jewish teen torn between parents and peers.

Of course, the director of "13" — whose two main characters were played by Jewish actresses; one, Nikki Reed, whose real life inspired the film — is dealing with a different kind of yon teen here: Mary, Mary, quite contrary … it is quite contrary to the common way the Madonna has been pictured before.

And this picture is almost as much Star of David as Star of Bethlehem. "It's almost more Jewish than Christian," says Hardwicke, hardly kidding, as she discusses her acclaimed new feature, "The Nativity Story."

Born-again biofilm? The angels did sing for this one, as the movie, a clear-eyed view of the birth of Jesus in anything but stable surroundings, presents the characters for the Jews they were. Not that Hardwicke knew who she was dealing with at first.

"When you grow up in a Presbyterian church, they don't advise you that Mary was Jewish," she says wryly.

And as for her Jewish friends? Well, Mary's Jewishness was not something they bragged about either. But Hardwicke's got bragging rights now as the architecture grad from the University of Texas at Austin has built herself quite a commercially spiritual success story based on the greatest story ever told.

Not that Hardwicke had a built-in knowledge of what she planned when initially sent the script. It was like Nativity 101, she recalls, in which "I had to learn about first-century Judaism."

It proved a common aura of education for all on set as "we had Jewish scholars come in" to teach everyone about what made a Jewish household a home.

And, she advises, if you look closely enough, you can see the exterior of a synagogue, built to afford the movie its catholic appeal. Having designs on getting it all right is hardly anything new for Hardwicke, production designer for such works as "Vanilla Sky" and "Three Kings." But it was one king of kings that concerned her now.

Hands together now: The Jewish scholar from Rome "showed how Jews of that era didn't pray in any one way, that they would find their own gestures, actually using their hands to try and pull the spirit toward them."

The film pulls from the past to present a compelling picture of a Jewish family unlike any other. "And it shows how Mary got closer to God through prayer." Hardwicke pauses. "Well, maybe closer than she expected," she adds with a laugh.

What the director steered clear of, clearly, is the controversy that attached itself to "The Passion of the Christ," in which Mel Gibson nailed his own future and fate with some Jews as an anti-Semite at cross purposes with the current teachings of the Vatican.

Holy controversy! "Some of my friends and I felt disturbed by 'The Passion of the Christ.' "

No tongue-lashing for Gibson could be harder to bear than the gruesome whippings he depicted on film. In a way, "Nativity" cradles the past in a kinder, gentler … Jewish … fashion. "Mary and Joseph were devout Jews; the moment they walk in their house, they kiss the mezuzah."

But for a filmmaker as acclaimed and applauded as Hardwicke, it's hard to kiss off the impact of Gibson's filmic fear-mongering. "After 'Passion,' I wanted to be positive, inclusive."

Included in the cast are a number of Jews — as well as Muslims — all working in the Morocco sun to let the son shine in. However, cast members need not have feared pontificating on set: "We also had a number of atheists and agnostics."

Believe this: One of the greatest stories is the one Hardwicke reveals now after the film premiered recently at the Vatican.

"The cool thing," says this cooler-than-cool, hot 51-year-old director, "is that the Vatican screening was a benefit for a school in Israel" serving children of all faiths and creeds.

If Hardwicke got her early Hollywood cred from "13" and then "The Lords of Dogtown," it is this current holy, holiday-time accomplishment that may lord it over all others.

Catherine Hardwicke, you've just won the critics' and public's acclaim. Where are you going next?


That's what she'd like to say, and it's a possibility that she'll be taking the steps — along with a good pair of sandals — to the Holy Land before the sands of time run out.

"We're talking about it," she says of taking "Nativity" to the nexus of all major religions. "I'd love to have a showing in Jerusalem."

In the meantime, Hardwicke plans her next project, "a film about eco-activists."

What — no sequel to "Nativity"? No "If I Were a Carpenter" or "A Walk on the Water Side"? No need. After all, she says, tongue in cheek rather than turning it, it's not like we don't all know how Mary's story turned out and what happened to her son.

No matter what Mel says! 



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