Nativity Story, The (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There are two ways in which one can consider The Nativity Story. As a piece of religious instruction or an animated version of a crèche, it accomplishes its aims. As a movie, however, it's slow, plodding, and not terribly interesting. There's also an unmistakable whiff of exploitation to be found. Although I'm sure the people directly involved with the making of the movie came to it with the best intentions, one can scent what smells suspiciously like greed coming from the corporate level. (Keep in mind that New Line Cinema is best known for its horror franchises - it owns both Freddy and Jason.) The desire to ride The Passion of the Christ's coattails is understandable - that movie was a bona fide blockbuster. However, The Nativity Story isn't in the same league. It's an uninspired re-telling of a Bible story that every Christian knows by heart.

Part of the problem is the story material. The tale of Jesus' birth isn't as interesting or compelling as the story of his death. Early Christians didn't care much about the Nativity - two of the Gospels (Mark, John) don't mention it. The others offer only sketchy details that provide little more than an outline for a screenplay. Writer Mike Rich pulled information from other sources (many apocryphal) and used his imagination to fill in the blanks. The result isn't stellar. The narrative is straightforward but not interesting. There's no dramatic tension, the characters are poorly developed (it's always difficult to humanize icons, and Rich does a bad job), and the dialogue is wooden. I don't know if it would ever be possible to make the Nativity as engrossing as the Passion, but there's no hope with Rich's script.

The movie opens in Nazarath with teenager Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) working in the fields and worrying about the tax collectors harassing her father. She soon learns she has been betrothed (against her will) to Joseph (Oscar Issac), a "good man." Shortly thereafter, she receives a visit from the Archangel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig), who informs her that she will become impregnated by the Holy Spirit and will give birth to Jesus, the Son of God. She goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth (Shohreh Agdashloo), who is pregnant at an advanced age with a boy who will become John the Baptist. When she returns to Nazarath, she becomes the subject of scandal due to her obvious state. Joseph is close to rejecting her, but the angel appears to him in a dream. When King Herod (Ciaran Hinds) calls for a census at the behest of his Roman masters, Joseph and Mary must return to the village of Joseph's birth, Bethlehem. It is there that the baby is born and a motley assortment of shepherds and magi come to visit the manger where he lies.

The Herod subplot is the most interesting, but it is given short shrift. As portrayed by Ciaran Hinds (who recently played Julius Caesar in the HBO series, Rome), Herod has untapped depths. He tries to be a good ruler but is obsessed with the possibility that the Messiah might usurp his position. So he uses ruthless means, including the "slaughter of the innocents" (killing all males in Bethlehem under the age of two) in an attempt to secure his position. He could not know that Jesus, as a man of peace with a spiritual kingdom, was no threat to his reign.

An inordinate amount of time is devoted to the trek from Nazarath to Bethlehem. It seems to be as long as the road traveled by Frodo and Sam to Mordor, only less interesting. The most momentous occurrence is when Mary nearly drowns while trying to cross a river. I don't remember that happening in the Bible but it's the kind of license many Christians won't mind. The three magi (although the Bible never specifies their number or their names) provide the "comic relief." At times, they're more like The Three Stooges than The Three Wise Men.

Director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen) is an odd choice for the film. This is her first attempt at a period epic, and her weaknesses show. Although she does an excellent job re-creating the look and feel of the time and place (set design and costumes are superlative), she is unable to provide us with compelling characters. Her decisions in developing the narrative make The Nativity Story seem like one of those illustrated children's books of Bible stories come to life.

The cast includes a number of respected actors, although no stars. Kiesha Castle-Hughes, Oscar nominated for Whale Rider, is an adequate Mary. Apparently, she found the idea of a young woman being pregnant so appealing that she tried it in real life. Shortly after completing filming of The Nativity Story, the 16-year old Castle-Hughes became pregnant by her boyfriend. (New Line is not publicizing this fact.) The movie's other previous Oscar nominee, Shoreh Agdashloo, is ridiculously over-the-top. Ciaran Hinds is one of the few performers who escapes with his reputation intact.

For Christians in search of something wholesome and non-controversial, The Nativity Story represents a reason to visit theaters this holiday season. Unlike the ultra-violent The Passion of the Christ, this movie is family friendly. Although about 75% of the material in the movie is extra-Biblical (including most of the dialogue), The Nativity Story uses a fusion of the Matthew/Luke account as its blueprint. However, for those who are not pulled to this movie for its religious slant, there's no reason to go. There's nothing here for a serious movie-goer. Despite the sizeable budget, this is little more than a glossy Christmas tract.

Nativity Story, The (United States, 2006)

Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Cast: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar Issac, Hiam Abbass, Shaul Toub, Alexander Siddig, Shohreh Agdashloo, Ciaran Hinds
Screenplay: Mike Rich
Cinematography: Elliot Davis
Music: Mychael Danna
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2006-12-01
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1