Vatican berth for 'Nativity'

First major film bow at Holy See

VATICAN CITY -- For the first time ever, the Holy See hosted the world premiere of a mass-market film, with the Christmas drama "The Nativity Story" screening Sunday to a large and enthusiastic crowd.

The Vatican rarely gives more than tacit approval to films or other cultural phenomena. But the 7,000-strong crowd on hand for the New Line Cinema production at the Vatican's Paul VI Hall represented a rare and clear endorsement by the Holy See, the seat of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics.

The Catherine Hardwicke-directed drama tells the story about the period in the lives of the biblical Mary and Joseph in which they travel to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. It stars Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary and Oscar Isaac as Joseph.

The film was loudly applauded at its conclusion, and the screening was punctuated by several fervent outbursts.

"Nativity" was shot in English, but for the Vatican screening the dubbed Italian version was shown along with English subtitles.

Around one-tenth of those on hand represented various vocations, with at least six cardinals in the hall. Pope Benedict XVI -- who will travel to Turkey on Tuesday -- did not attend, but the Vatican's second-ranking official, Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, did appear. Additionally, the film was officially introduced by Archbishop John Foley, the head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, one of the main sponsors of the event.

Cardinal Bertone had previously been appointed by Pope John Paul II to head the committee charged with debunking the best-selling book "The Da Vinci Code," which was critical of the church.

The premiere was a fundraiser for the construction of a school in the village of Mughar, Israel, a cross-cultural township populated by Christians, Muslims, Jews and Druze and located just 25 miles from Nazareth. In addition to Cardinal Bertone and Archbishop Foley, the crowd on hand include Hardwicke, Isaac, fellow cast member Shohreh Aghdashloo (who plays Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist), producers Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey and screenwriter Mike Rich.

Traditionally, the Vatican -- the world's smallest country, which is surrounded by the city of Rome -- has been more vocal of its opposition to films than its approval of them.

In addition to calling for a boycott of the film version of "Da Vinci Code" this year, the church voiced even stronger opposition to Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" in 1986. The surrounding controversy forced the film to be dropped by Paramount before being picked up and distributed by Universal two years later.

Before "Nativity," the closest the Vatican came to even a tacit endorsement of a movie was for Mel Gibson's 2003 film "The Passion of the Christ." After viewing the film, Pope John Paul II reportedly said, "It is as it was" -- though there was no official Vatican endorsement.

In addition to the Pontifical Council for Social Communication, the official sponsors of the premiere were the Pontifical Council for Culture, the Vatican Film Library, the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum" (for Human and Christian Development), the Vicariate of Vatican City State and the Foundation for Sacred Art and Music.

The film opens Friday in the U.S. and Italy and elsewhere later in December.