The Nativity Story Review
The Nativity Story had the potential to be one of the more interesting films of the year. The story of Christ's birth as told by Catherine Hardwicke, the director of the tough, uncompromising teen drama Thirteen promised to be at least something different. Instead, surprisingly, The Nativity Story is not very different at all from the kind of safe, reverent gospel adaptation that's produced by America's Christian-owned media companies. While Mel Gibson, for better or worse, stamped his personal vision over every frame of The Passion Of The Christ, Catherine Hardwicke appears to have been intimidated by the subject matter into providing what she thinks Christians expect.
The first half, which introduces the characters and details the harsh life led by Jewish peasants in Roman-occupied Judea is the best. The movie does a respectable job of showing the kind of existence Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and Joseph (Oscar Isaac) must have faced and it makes it abundantly clear why there was so much enthusiasm among the population for the coming of a Messiah. Mary and Joseph's courtship is convincingly portrayed, with Mary as young and scared as a newlywed wife would have been in that culture. Also effective are the scenes dealing with Mary's unexplained pregnancy, her husband growing jealous and her family fearing she'll be stoned as an adulteress.
Right from the beginning however, the film shows signs of going wrong. Inexplicably, it opens with a flash-forward to the slaughter of Bethlehem's infants by King Herod (Ciarán Hinds). Why? Are we supposed to be in suspense about whether Jesus will survive this massacre? Herod features in a subplot concerned with his fears that the Messiah prophecies might be true and that such a man might topple him. These scenes are watchable enough but they don't add any historical or social insights to a familiar story, as those set in Nazareth do.
It's The Nativity Story's third plotline that does by far the most damage. Inexplicably, in a film that is otherwise straight-faced almost to the point of grimness, the Three Wise Men are portrayed as three clowns bickering on their camels all the way from Persia to Bethlehem. Sure, there was room for comic relief, but did it need to be this broad and did it have to break the tone of the film so jarringly?
As the story progresses, Catherine Hardwicke and writer Mike Rich find it harder to reconcile their gritty vision of Judean life with the traditional, Sunday School portrayal of the Nativity and they defer more and more to the latter. The Angel Gabriel, played by Deep Space Nine's Alexander Siddig, is an enigmatic figure in a white robe straight out of a primary school play. By the film's conclusion, Hardwicke has abandoned all attempts at realism and she's shooting the manger like a religious painting, with a ray of light from Heaven illuminating the Baby Jesus. By then, all interest in the human side of the story has drained away.
Mary and Joseph are played perfectly well by Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) and Oscar Isaac but they don't emerge as characters with personalities, perhaps for the same reason Jesus almost never does in Biblical films: because a personality requires flaws and quirks and film-makers are afraid that giving them any such traits will offend viewers. No viewers are likely to be offended by The Nativity Story but nor is it likely to appeal to anyone beyond devout Christians and I suspect many of those Christians will find it underwhelming.