And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from New Line Cinema that “The Nativity Story” should be produced …
And so it was. Released nationwide today, “The Nativity Story” tells the emotional journey of Mary and Joseph (Keisha Castle-Hughes and Oscar Isaac) after they learn that Mary will give birth to God’s son. The script by Mike Rich (“The Rookie,” “Radio,” “Finding Forrester”) combines biblical accounts with speculation about the emotional and psychological states of the main figures in Jesus’ birth.
Most of the movie puts these characters in earthy settings and tones, portraying their ancient times, customs and problems in view of God’s arrival in human form. In the last act, however, director Catherine Hardwicke delivers most of Luke and Matthew’s memorable moments: the shepherds, the wise men, the star, the gifts, the manger.
The movie actually begins with the Slaughter of the Innocents: King Herod’s attempt to kill all males 2 years and younger in an effort to prevent the “new king” he has heard about from surviving.
Were this Mel Gibson’s nativity story, we no doubt would be knee-deep in blood already. But it’s not. This is PG filmmaking—and a Christmas movie to boot—and Romans in slaughter mode aren’t graphic.
So we quickly flash back to before Jesus’ birth—to Zechariah, who disbelieves an angelic word about his old wife’s pregnancy and is struck dumb as a result. Then we cut to Nazareth, where we meet Mary and hear stories about promises of “a new king for those who have nothing.”
But the Romans show up to demand more taxes, and that’s when things are really set in motion. We see Joseph’s interest in Mary and learn that Jesus’ earthly father is indeed a good man.
Then it’s back to Herod (Ciaran Hinds), already paranoid about his grip on power and unsettled by prophecies of a new king. And then we cut Persia and the wise men, who are piecing together prophecies and astrological portents.
It’s a daunting task to tell such a revered story, but “The Nativity Story” is basically well told. In 90 minutes, Hardwicke pulls off a solid biblical adaptation.
You do feel Mary’s humanity and the weight of her predicament. In fact, the movie’s best scenes involve her and Joseph trying to make sense of their circumstances. These moments are speculative, of course, but the filmmakers delivered their best work in these moments and not those highlighting what we already know from the Bible.
Mary and Joseph’s honest conversations about being scared, about raising God’s son—these deserved more screen time. A forced, melodramatic moment wherein a snake scares their donkey during a river crossing should have hit the cutting-room floor.
The real appeal of “The Nativity Story” is Joseph, played by Oscar Isaac. Acting alongside Oscar nominees Castle-Hughes and Aghdashloo, Isaac owns the movie. Saying very little, the Juilliard graduate brilliantly expresses what must surely have been Joseph’s doubt, anger and fear.
Isaac reclaims Joseph from the dustbin of our Luke 2 memories and provides Christ-like traits before, during and after the film’s manger climax. Credit Hardwicke and Rich, also, for a terrific conceptualization of Jesus’ earthly father and a concern for his big moments.
When Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem, they encounter a seer who, noting Mary’s pregnant state, says to Joseph: “To see yourself in a young face—there is no greater joy.” In this moment, you experience Joseph in a new light.
These moments, frankly, hold more emotional resonance than Mary’s, some of which include voice-overs like, “How is anyone to believe me?” and “How are they to understand?”
The biggest misfire—not theologically, but narratively—concerns the wise men. Trying to make them humorous, while simultaneously having them sum up their astrological and astronomical concerns, doesn’t work for me.
Nevertheless, I’m glad “The Nativity Story” exists on film. It’s destined to become a pillar of Christmas media …
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG for some violent content. Reviewer’s Note: A couple of tame child-birthing scenes for Mary and Elizabeth.
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Writer: Mike Rich
Cast: Mary: Keisha Castle-Hughes; Joseph: Oscar Isaac; Elizabeth: Shohreh Aghdashloo; Zechariah: Stanley Townsend; Herod: Ciaran Hinds.
The movie’s official Web site is here.