Between the classic Christmas movies and the onslaught of new offerings each season, even the most casual Christmas movie consumers have an idea of what to expect. Maybe it’s a scene featuring a soft afternoon snowfall that leaves a perfect patch for snow angels or a cute moment made cuter by a sprig of mistletoe overhead.
The thing about Christmas movies is that they tend to feel familiar, even interchangeable. Consider the following examples. In one movie, an ambitious career woman comes to a small town to rebrand her rustic resort. Instead, she falls for a handsome local man and his stubborn ways change as she learns to appreciate the city’s charms and the true meaning of Christmas. Another film is about a gutsy public relations specialist who must team up with a curmudgeonly (if still handsome) executive to pull off his company’s holiday charity events. Despite their initial differences, romance blossoms and levels of seasonal joy rise. Finally, there is the film about a middle-aged man, depressed, desperate and on the brink of financial ruin, who attempts drunken suicide before being tormented by hallucinations of a world in which he never existed in the lives of his loved ones. the. Fortunately, he is still handsome despite his problems.
If you recognized the first two examples, then you may be familiar with the Christmas movies that the Hallmark Channel produces by the dozen each year. (The two in question, If I only had Christmas Y Let it Snow, also the staple of the Candace Cameron Bure genre and were made in Canada, Hollywood’s favorite destination for snowy weather, quaint small towns, and friendly extras). There is always a life lesson to be learned, often about the need to put the lonely, selfish aside from the pursuit of mundane success and rediscover the more homely values of family, community, and romantic commitment. Whether the movies are more secular or overtly faith-based, they dress up the same bland platitudes with the cheesiest Christmas decorations.
Regarding the third example, maybe you identified it as It’s a wonderful life — the 1946 season favorite directed by Frank Capra and starring Jimmy Stewart. What is surprising is how much this classic tale deviates from the contemporary template for the festive meal. It may offer some of the same sentimental pleasures, but it also has a harder edge in that it recognizes life’s challenges that may not be so easily resolved with a magical Christmas. While Hallmark and its imitators have had enormous success with a formula that millions of moviegoers find as cozy as a reindeer-print sweater, their offerings risk crowding out this other kind of Christmas movie, one that may be more resonant. due to their news of comfort and joy they are based on a less rosy reality.
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The creators of some of the most beloved Christmas stories certainly knew this to be the case. In fact, the original 1843 novel by Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol it would seem like a bitter-tasting mixture of cruelty, misery, and misanthropy, even if the author hadn’t killed Tiny Tim (albeit temporarily). The 1951 film version starring Alastair Sim may come closest to capturing the book’s sometimes grim nature and portrayal of Victorian-era hardships. That’s also why it remains the most satisfying of the many film adaptations, most shocking being Ebenezer Scrooge’s change of heart due to his coldness throughout much of the story. Unlike the comfortably off characters who dominate the production of Hallmark and similar Christmas rom-coms like love actually Y The holidaysthe people around Scrooge experience inequities and hardships that are more like real life struggles.
The displays of generosity and self-sacrifice in such stories are more powerful because the characters have so little to give. To cite another seasonal chestnut, The gift of the Magi O. Henry’s much-imitated story about a newlywed couple who go to great lengths to give each other meaningful Christmas presents, would have little of its poignancy if they could afford to buy spa gift cards.
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This gap between what the Christmas movie used to be and what it has become is further highlighted with another new Christmas-themed movie, which premiered in Cannes in May and is coming to Disney+ later this year. The project arose when the famous scriptwriter and director Alfonso Cuarón (Rome, Gravity) approached Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher to offer her the chance to make the kind of Christmas tale that recalled the style and sensibility of an earlier era.
The result is The pupil, a charming 40-minute short film set in a Catholic boarding school in Italy during World War II. Under the watchful eye of the nuns in charge, a group of girls perform the duties and rituals of the season, including their roles in the annual parade that generates much of the school’s meager funds. When one of the younger ones is punished for an apparent wrongdoing, she is tormented by worries of becoming a “bad girl” who doesn’t deserve any kind of kindness. More consternation is caused for her by the arrival of a cake that is almost surreally decadent in such Dickensian circumstances.
An homage to both Charlie Chaplin comedies and the grim but humane films of postwar Italy, Rohrwacher’s short is whimsical and heavy in equal measure. There’s no hiding the challenges the girls face as they listen to a war propaganda radio broadcast or watch with envy as the only girl who gets to spend the holidays with her family leaves. Whether they are orphans or unwanted, at least they have each other. They also have a Mother Superior, played by Alba Rohrwacher, the director’s older sister and the star of his equally interesting feature films. The wonders Y Happy as Lazarus —who struggles with his own harsh ways and also yearns for a bit of softness in his life. Like so many great Christmas stories, it’s a thoughtful reflection on the true meaning of generosity and the lengths we’ll go to be “good” at the time of year that seems to count the most.
The heaviest themes of The pupil they’re a welcome antidote to the sentimental sweetness that floods our screens this time of year. Of course, there is room for both types of Christmas movies. After all, it can feel just as good to gorge on Hallmark’s cheesy fantasies as it would to have the girls feast on that mind-blowing cake.
jason anderson is a writer, critic and film programmer in Toronto.
This essay first appeared in wide view’December 2022 edition with the title “Christmas without schmaltz”.
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