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The Nativity Story

The Nativity Story is a somewhat tepid but very faithful Sunday school retelling of the birth of Jesus Christ. Let's just say there aren't any surprises.


Of course, this is the first time this story has gotten the full cinematic treatment. The basics are there: A young Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) immaculately conceives the son of God after being visited by an angel, and she and her husband, Joseph (Oscar Issac), make a long trek to Bethlehem on a donkey. She then gives birth to Jesus in a manger, under the star of David, surrounded by the animals, the shepherds and, of course, the three wise men. But The Nativity Story goes much deeper than that. It paints a picture of the times, where the Jews are continually persecuted by King Herod (Ciaran Hinds), a man ultra-paranoid about the foretold prophecy that a Messiah will take over his rule. It details how Mary has to face her family, her new husband--and especially the suspicious villagers--who don't believe her story on how she became pregnant. There's also Mary's cousin, Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who gives birth to John the Baptist even though she is way past her prime. Even the three Magi get some face time. Through their calculations, they see that three planets will align themselves for the first time in 3,000 years to form one shining star, and under it, the new Messiah will be born. The rest, as they say, is history.


Everyone seems to hold up their end of the bargain nicely, especially Castle-Hughes. In playing the Holy Mother--a daunting task, to say the least--the young actress does so with a quiet grace, her forlorn face changing to one of peaceful joy once her mission has been handed down. She proves it wasn't just a fluke she got nominated for Best Actress for her unbelievably heartbreaking performance in Whale Rider. Newcomer Isaac also turns in a worthy performance as the slightly older Joseph, a kind-hearted carpenter who, after having his own vision, stands by Mary, the woman he clearly adores. Still, through Isaac, you can see some of the pain Joseph must have gone through, knowing the baby wasn't exactly his. And any comic relief in The Nativity Story has to come from the three wise men: Melachior (Nadim Sawalha), Balthasar (Eriq Ebouaney) and Gaspar (Stefan Kalipha). Their constant bickering and complaining while on their long journey makes for some lighthearted moments. The always elegant Oscar-nominee Aghdashloo, however, doesn't get nearly enough screen time. I guess the story of John the Baptist will have to be a movie on its own.


What's really amazing about The Nativity Story is that it comes from director Catherine Hardwicke, the same person who gave us the horrifying teen drama Thirteen and the laidback skateboarding flick Lords of Dogtown--talk about trying something different! Hardwicke is a capable director, no question. Filming mostly in Southern Italy and Morocco, she is meticulous about giving Nativity an authentic look and feel, even bringing in archeologists to help recreate the time. The main problem is in Hardwicke's attempts to create a cinematic experience around the birth of Jesus Christ. Although certainly a step above a short biblical film you might watch in Sunday school, Nativity still has some of those sensibilities, heavy-handed in places it doesn't need to be. The film works much better when it's showing the reality of the situation. But 'tis the season for such a film, and Nativity should surely invoke the true meaning of Christmas for many.

Bottom Line rated this film 2 stars.