Judge Daniel MacDonald thought he saw a bright star in the heavens, but it turns out it was just a UFO,
The Journey of a Lifetime, a Story for All Time.
It was inevitable that following the towering success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ a new, "grittier" retelling of the birth of Jesus wouldn't be far behind. Early in 2006, a dramatic impressionistic teaser trailer was released, heralding the impending release of The Nativity Story to much murmuring within the theatre—but does it turn out to be the definitive version of the biblical Christmas miracle?
Facts of the Case
It's the traditional Christmas story, told with a bit more depth than usual:
Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes, Whale Rider) is an ordinary teenage girl who works hard to earn money for her poor family, much of which is taken by King Herod's ruthless tax collectors.
But shortly after her arranged marriage to Joseph (Oscar Isaac), the Angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig, Syriana) visits Mary with surprising news—she will be the virgin mother of God's son. Understandably, this causes some tension in her relationship with her new husband.
Herod (Ciaran Hinds, Munich), meanwhile, is tormented with rumors that a new king is to be born soon and may rule Jerusalem; he orders a census be held, and all are to return to the town of their birth, passing through Herod's checkpoints along the way. So a very pregnant Mary and determined Joseph must take a harrowing journey to his hometown of Bethlehem, hoping to find room at the inn when they arrive.
Meanwhile, in Persia, three wise men are tracking a unique pattern of behavior in the stars that signals a major event to come soon. This prompts the men to set out on a journey of their own.
The Nativity Story is a perfectly decent movie with grand production values, an engaging look, and intense attention to period detail—it's a testament of good craftsmanship. Unfortunately, it's lacking the passion, point-of-view and sense of wonder needed to make this uplifting story resonate. All the pieces are there, but they never quite seem to fit together the way they should.
The story itself is quite simple in its original form, and so one expects the movie version to explore some of the subtextual elements. But while interesting questions and issues are brought up, they are rarely explored with any depth. Mary, for example, is faced with the prospect of returning to her husband and parents several months pregnant, after spending time with her also pregnant cousin Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo, House of Sand and Fog), and she very well may be stoned to death for it. But upon her arrival she merely states that she has "broken no vow," and will either be believed or she won't—this seems to be intended to show Mary's bravery and strong faith, but is so underplayed that it comes across as apathy, as if she doesn't really care one way or another. Joseph, on the other hand, has the most emotionally gripping scene of the film, a dream sequence where he considers participating in the stoning of his wife. Why didn't Mary have a dream like this, showing the audience both what she is up against and that she actually has some emotion about it? Several times throughout the picture, Joseph is given active things to do that define his character, while Mary looks off thoughtfully, making him both more interesting and more fleshed out. Mary's portrayal was by far the most disappointing aspect of the film, as she's remarkably dispassionate even when telling the Angel Gabriel that she'll do whatever God asks of her—she effectively comes off like she doesn't have a choice, going against what makes Mary such a revered figure in the Christian faith. There seems to be a concerted effort to make Mary a typical teenager, but in doing so her strength is sold short.
I would have appreciated more from Herod and his soldiers as well. Herod comes across as a man who spends his days walking around slowly, sharing his obsessed mind with whomever happens to be in the vicinity, while his team of soldiers consists mindless thugs just following orders. The film is bookended by Herod's ordering the slaughter of all male children under two years of age in Bethlehem, an effort to wipe out this prophesized king he's been hearing about—I would imagine that one or two of the soldiers might have had a problem with this, meaning there's a lot of dramatic potential here, all of it left un-mined in favor of simplicity.
Not that there's anything wrong with simplicity per se, but so much of the film indicates that this is to be the essential telling of this tale, from the brutal slaying of children to the accurate depictions of a workday in ancient Nazareth, all supported by thoroughly-researched production design and noteworthy costumes: there's the potential to rival Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ for biblical period detail. Instead, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole here, and I wonder if perhaps another draft of the script might have made all the difference.
This movie at this time begs comparisons between it and The Passion of the Christ, which is perhaps unfair—it's always easier to accurately depict pain, suffering, and sadness in a movie than hope and joy, so The Nativity Story had its work cut out for it to be as profoundly moving an experience as Passion. Further, Passion was a hard R-rated picture, meaning very little had to be left unsaid (or unseen) to meet the demands of its target audience, while The Nativity Story is infinitely more family-friendly by nature—so to keep it PG, it couldn't be too accurate. But the one place where they are on even ground is the devotion and fire with which they are made, and it is here that The Nativity Story comes up short. Where The Passion of the Christ was a deeply personal proclamation of faith meant to explore and reveal new truths about a familiar narrative, little about The Nativity Story feels personal, and that's a shame; it's a biblical story aimed at a secular audience. Even the score from the otherwise-reliable Mychael Danna (The Sweet Hereafter) seems generically medieval and lacking in enthusiasm. Despite its apt theatrical release in December, I think the lack of a personal faith journey is what prevented it from connecting with audiences on the scale it intended.
This release from New Line has no special features except the excellent teaser trailer and more conventional full-length trailer. Perhaps a bevy of supplementary material is too much to ask, as this release comes a little over three months after the theatrical campaign, but some insight into the picture's development might have aided in understanding the filmmakers' intentions.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite all the criticism, this is not a bad movie by any means, and in fact much of it is quite good.
It's obvious that director Catherine Hardwicke (Lords of Dogtown) wanted to give audiences an unvarnished experience of what life was like at that time—as much as is possible in a PG-rated film, anyway—and kudos to all involved for pulling it off handily. The location feels real and lived in, the people both comfortable with and a bit saddened by their surroundings, and the labor second nature to all who perform it. Apparently the cast went to great lengths to learn how to use ancient techniques for making cheese and pressing olives, which adds authenticity to the proceedings. The greatest strength of the film is in the completeness of its setting.
The performances are very good as well. While I didn't care for the way Mary was characterized when compared to the other roles, Castle-Hughes made the most of it and gives a complete, committed presentation. She was likely chosen for her naturalistic cadence and wise demeanor, both of which are on display throughout. My favorite performance in the movie is Shoreh Aghhdashloo's turn as Elizabeth—she exudes faith and spirituality, and her joyful exclamation upon seeing that Mary has come to visit is a brief example of what the picture on a whole is missing. The cast members are all well suited to their respective roles, no one standing out as stunt casting or a poor decision.
The costumes are rich and detailed, looking appropriately worn and of natural materials: pay special attention to the shepherds, whose ratty attire speaks volumes about their way of life and place in society.
Elliot Davis (Out of Sight, I Am Sam) is one of my favorite cinematographers, and this film does well to show his range—gone are his signature blue and yellow edge lights in favor of naturalistic, desaturated tones, but he puts his stamp on the picture with framing and movement. Nearly every shot in this picture is an unpretentious work of art.
The DVD features a solid video transfer in both its original aspect ratio and full frame, with plenty of fine detail showing the raggedness of the shepherds' cloaks and the ruggedness of the terrain.
A good movie but not a great one, The Nativity Story fails to reach its potential, which is a shame as I doubt anyone will be attempting to remake this story anytime soon. I do recommend checking this one out with your family, appropriate for all ages save for the very young, just don't have your expectations too high.
Let off with a warning.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Theatrical Teaser
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