Every year about this time, or maybe a bit earlier, my wife and I bring the Christmas boxes down from the garage shelves and spread our holiday knick-knacks around the house to mark the occasion.
As empty nesters, we don’t do as much as we once did. But a tree still goes up with lights and decorations, and in addition to a crèche and various tchotchkes, our Christmas books, CDs and DVDs are scattered about for easy access.
Joyce would love to watch holiday movies exclusively between Thanksgiving and Christmas (and maybe another week after), though I prefer to sandwich them in between other things. After all, we’ve seen each one a dozen or more times.
A few that seem to find their way into the DVD player every year include “Miracle on 34th Street,” “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” “White Christmas,” “A Christmas Story” and “The Bishop’s Wife.” And, of course, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Others tend to be rotated in and out every few years: “Prancer,” “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” “O. Henry’s Full House,” “Holiday Affair,” “Christmas in Connecticut,” “The Shop Around the Corner,” “Holiday Inn,” “Elf”
Along with films that are more worshipful, such as the Nativity sequences from “King of Kings” or “The Greatest Story Ever Told” or “Jesus of Nazareth,” and the independent production of a few years ago, “The Nativity.” Also the original 1951 version of the opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” among other TV offerings.
The first one we watched this year, however, and which really got us in the Christmas-movie-watching mood, was a new film sent for review from the local distribution company Covenant, a byutv production titled “Silent Night.” (Not to be confused with the theatrical horror film “Silent Night” that played in New York last weekend and went to DVD this week; as unfortunate a juxtaposition of movie releases as I’ve ever seen.)
“Silent Night” was written, directed and produced by Christian Vuissa, whose earlier features are “Baptists at our Barbecue,” “The Errand of Angels,” “One Good Man,” “Joseph Smith: Plates of Gold” and most recently, “The Letter Writer.”
Some of those are among the better entries in the so-called “Mormon Cinema” movement that began a dozen years ago — I’m especially fond of “Angels” and “Man” — but despite its byutv connection, “Silent Night” has no LDS elements.
This is the true story of a young Catholic priest in Austria named Joseph Mohr, an amateur musician and poet who, in 1818, had one of his written works set to music, resulting in the perennial holiday hymn of the title.
Joseph is a young man of faith trying desperately to do the right thing in the face of cultural prejudices and stifling traditions. And it’s an uphill battle.
Assigned as assistant priest to a small Austrian parish in Oberndorf, about 12 miles north of his Salzberg home (but quite a trek on foot), Joseph proves to be a forward thinker who desires nothing more than to reach out to disenfranchised locals that have long stopped attending services.
The priest he assists is open to his ideas but is quickly transferred out of the area, leaving Joseph to run the parish under the thumb of his new, steeped-in-tradition superior. And there’s a spy among the congregants who is more than willing to report what he perceives as Joseph’s sacrilegious efforts.
The most controversial thing Joseph does is to establish a small church choir that averts Latin in favor of singing in German so the common folk can understand the words — although the film is actually in English. Despite the fact that the church has sanctioned such activities, Joseph’s traditionalist superior chides him for it — and especially for allowing a woman to sing with the choir, though it is a spontaneous act on her part.
There are also anecdotal stories of Joseph developing relationships with this local girl, who helps bring in a few other parishioners, as well as a mother whose son is gravely ill, elements that are likely fictional. But they are certainly emotionally fulfilling and advance the story while giving us a better understanding of the character of Joseph Mohr.
And they dovetail nicely into what is historically documented, that Joseph and church organist Franz Gruber bonded through a shared love of music, with Franz composing the music for Joseph’s six-stanza poem. It is also true that when the church organ broke down they recruited the choir to help them debut “Silent Night” with guitar accompaniment during a Christmas Eve midnight mass.
Making a low-budget, independent-period piece, and especially shooting it on location, is no easy task. But “Silent Night” is obviously a labor of love for Vuissa. A native of Austria, he is right at home filming in these location settings, some of which are authentic to the story.
The picture is also very well cast with excellent European actors in key roles, from Joseph’s scowling superior (Clemens Aap Lindenberg) to the two charming women he helps (Janina Elkin and Florence Matousek) to lesser but nonetheless important characters. Markus von Lingen is also terrific as Franz Gruber, displaying a strong screen presence.
And as Joseph, Carsten Clemens hits all the right notes, from his humility as he embarks on his first assignment to his frustration when his attempts to expand the flock are impeded to the joy he feels when he sees the fruits of his labors and, of course, during his musical collaboration with Franz.
In lesser hands the material here could be overwrought or histrionic or sappy and sentimental, but Vuissa keeps the temperature at just the right level throughout. And his script’s economy of dialogue is natural and smart.
For me, “Silent Night” is Vuissa’s most resonant, heartfelt work yet, one that’s sure to join all those holiday perennials in our home for many Christmases to come.