Making a movie about Jesus is difficult enough. Anyone who would dramatize the life of Christ must strike a fine balance between his full humanity and his full divinity, and many filmmakers have erred on one side or the other. But at least the Scriptures give us ample data to work with, and at least there is broad agreement across church boundaries that Jesus was, and is, both divine and human.

But making a movie about Mary poses even thornier challenges. The Bible says little about her life, so dramatists who focus on her life—such as the writer and director of The Nativity Story, which opens Friday, Dec. 1—must invent whole aspects of her story from scratch. Even more daunting, for filmmakers who want to reach as broad an audience as possible, is the fact that different churches have strongly different views on Mary.

Was she as fallible as any other human being? Or was she free from the stain of sin? Did she bear any other children? Or did she remain a virgin throughout her life? Should Jesus ever be shown correcting her, possibly even offending her? Or, as the mother of Jesus, should she offer him any guidance and possibly correct him?

The earliest Bible movies didn't have to wrestle with these questions so much, partly because the silent era relied heavily on traditional religious iconography—which is to say, Catholic iconography—for its visuals.

The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, a French production released in various versions between 1902 and 1905, was more of a pageant than a drama, each scene a tableau illustrating an episode from the Gospels or from later legends. Much of it concerns the birth of Jesus, and there is little concern for realism; the baby Jesus appears in the manger, seemingly ...

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