I never saw the Nativity story as a musical rom-com, but then again, maybe only someone with a genius mind like director Adam Anders could envision a spectacle like this. If you like your bible stories serious and strictly biblical, then you won’t get much enjoyment from this film. If you’re a musical theatre fan with a taste for the campier side of things, then this is the movie for you.
Journey to Bethlehem begins with Mary (Fiona Palomo) receiving news that she’s engaged to be married, but this doesn’t stir joy within her. She wanted more for her life, with ambitions to become a teacher and one day marry for love. All these dreams now seem futile as she’s set to marry a stranger. She then bumps into her betrothed Joseph (Milo Manheim) in the market in an adorable little meet-cute, with both unaware that this is the person they’re supposed to marry in a few days. There’s attraction, some subtle flirting from Joseph, but of course nothing can come from it since they’re both engaged.
This encounter only brings more conflict to Mary when she discovers that her fiancé is the man she met in the market, since he flirted with her despite knowing he was engaged to someone else. And even though Joseph argues that it doesn’t really matter since she is the woman he’s supposed to marry, Mary cannot conceive how true love can blossom from a union of reluctant hearts.
This movie is as entertaining as it is because Palomo and Manheim are the romantic leads. They’re both such magnetic performers, able to rival the chemistry Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens brought to the High School Musical movies. Their romantic scenes are also staged so wonderfully, where even the act of merely gazing at each from across a wooden plank is enough to combust our screens and melt even the most cynical of hearts.
Palomo is just so luminous. You’ll find it difficult to tear your eyes away from her every single time she’s on screen — it’s no wonder Joseph was so smitten immediately. Manheim is incredibly charismatic, and it’s great to see him in a film that allows him to showcase his range. There’s a particular set piece where two conflicting parts of himself battle, and watching him perform each character is truly mesmerizing stuff.
Antonio Banderas as King Herod is such an out-of-the-box casting decision, but it works. He’s incredibly villainous, and is the kind of antagonist that relishes in his villainy. There’s no redemption arc here, as Herod’s vanity is so humongous that even his son is viewed as a rival. Banderas is so deliciously wicked and campy in his performance, reminiscent of Disney villains like Scar.
If you’re familiar with the story, you know that Mary will become pregnant with Jesus, which the film uses as an obstacle for Mary and Joseph’s union. The obvious conclusion is that she got pregnant because she slept with someone, and no one believes her story of immaculate conception. Can Joseph’s faith in her win out over his rational mind? The outcome isn’t going to surprise viewers in any way, but a rom-com is never about the ending; it’s mostly about the journey of our romantic leads. In the end, Mary and Joseph end up with everything they’ve been seeking.
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There's just something so delightfully earnest and magical about Journey to Bethlehem. You'll find yourself smiling for most of its runtime.
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