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December 1, 2006
Movie Review: The Nativity Story

One of the more anticipated films for us this season has been The Nativity Story, which the First Mate had first known from listening to Relevant Radio. New Line Cinema, which produced Lord of the Rings, goes for another epic story, but in this case they focus less on the epic nature of the Nativity and more on the human story behind it.

The story starts with Herod's order to slay every firstborn male child in Bethlehem, and the images are grim, chaotic, and dark. Herod, played with some ferocity by the outstanding Ciaran Hinds (Rome's Julius Caesar), makes it clear with almost every syllable that he will not brook a rival to his power, prophecy or no. He intends on ruling his adopted people -- Herod was an Arab, not born a Jew -- until his final breath, as his son Antipas notes.

After that, the film returns us to one year prior to the genocidal command of Herod, where Mary lived as a poor girl helping to keep her family afloat while Herod collects more taxes, and more callously. One of her friends gets carted off by the Roman soldiers for a tax debt of the girl's family, which points out the grim times in which Mary lived. When her father arranges her marriage, she does not erupt with happiness, but she will shortly get a holy vision that instructs her of her future. The movie then gradually catches up to the beginning, walking us through the lives of Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, and the three Wise Men who begin their journey to Judea when they realize the meaning of the sign that they have been given.

Catherine Hardwicke takes a different approach to the material, although she does stick fairly close to the Gospel in the relevant facts. Her focus on the hardships of life under Roman oppression give real urgency to the hope of the Israelis for a Messiah. She also does not shy away from the hardships of the social life in the poor village. Mary at one time had everyone for a friend, but when she returns to Nazareth from visiting Elizabeth notably pregnant before the consummation of her marriage to Joseph, she gets shunned by almost everyone except Joseph and her family. When the call for the census comes, it almost seems like a relief -- so much so that Joseph jokes with Mary as they leave Nazareth about how much they'll be missed.

Nativity succeeds in its mission, which is to make the Nativity real and human enough to make it accessible to all of us. It's brilliant, and really only has one minor flaw, and that's Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary. She seems too passive, too quiet to hold anyone's interest. Castle-Hughes does a fairly good job otherwise, but given Hardwicke's efforts to humanize everyone else, Castle-Hughes gives us an ethereal Mary that doesn't ever seem all that affected by the events unfolding around her. It's the same complaint I have with Robert Powell as Jesus in Jesus of Nazareth. However, Castle-Hughes does have a genuine quality and a charm that will help audiences overlook this one slightly flat note in a masterpiece.

The movie gets lots of help with that from the rest of the cast. Oscar Isaac is a revelation as Joseph, giving a brilliant portrayal of a man whom the Nativity sometimes shortchanges. It's probably the best and most well-rounded portrayal of the courage and dignity of an ordinary man whose sainthood comes not so much from his visions but from his innate goodness and mercy. Shoreh Aghdashloo as Elizabeth is also outstanding, as is Stanley Townsend as Zecharia. The three Wise Men give the movie a little bit of comedic relief at times, but the laughs grow out of the bonds of deep friendship and respect that shine through the dialogue. Star Trek alum Alexander Siddig makes brief but memorable appearances as an approachable archangel Gabriel, the kind of apparition that one could believe would give comfort to Mary and Joseph. Hinds comes close to stealing the movie away from Isaac in his portrayal of Herod.

One notable decision made by Hardwicke is to underscore the sense of place by hiring Arabic looking actors for all of the parts, including Mary. No one in the movie looks out of place; we see no blond-haired, blue-eyed Mary. Many of the actors are Arab or Persian, in fact. The places look authentic and the hardscrabble scenery lends credibility to the movie.

We left the theater highly impressed by The Nativity Story. It will make a perfect movie for the family this Christmas season, although I would caution people to leave the younger children at home, especially for the scenes of the Bethlehem slaughter (which is not graphic but disturbing nonetheless) and a number of crucified bodies throughout the movie that remind us of the turbulent era in which this story takes place. Eventually, this will grace family shelves alongside copies of Jesus of Nazareth, The Ten Commandments, and other well-made films based on the Bible.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 1, 2006 10:03 PM

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