Thursday, November 30, 2006
For a movie 2,006 years in the making, The Nativity Story is unforgivably dull. Granted, the birth of Jesus Christ isn’t a very glitzy story to begin with, but it doesn’t help that director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen) sticks to the Sunday school interpretation as if she had a Bible glued to her chest. The Jesus Camp crowd may think the film is a wonderful way to welcome the Christmas season, but there’s not much here for the rest of us.
Hardwicke’s film begins one year before (arguably) the most famous birth in history. We meet Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes), an innocent teenager in the town of Nazareth whose father (Shaun Toub) tells her she’s to marry Joseph (Oscar Isaac), a local carpenter. Dismayed, she accepts her role until she’s visited by the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig), who tells her she will become impregnated by the Holy Spirit and give birth to the son of God. (Note: This is not the “Immaculate Conception,” as it’s often mistaken to be. The Immaculate Conception is actually the birth of Mary, and her soul being “cleansed” of the sins of mankind by God. The conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary and his birth is actually known as the “Virgin Birth.”)
As Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a prophesy foretelling the coming of the Messiah captivates the interest of the power-hungry King Herod (Ciaran Hinds), who has dispatched his men to kill all newborn children. Three wise men—Melchior (Nadim Sawalha), Balthasar (Eriq Ebouaney) and Gaspar (Stefan Kalipha)—also hear of the prophesy, and follow a star to the birth in Bethlehem; the wise men here may better be described as wise guys, as they delightfully provide the only comic relief.
Christian purists will be happy Hardwicke and writer Mike Rich are loyal to the Biblical rendition of the nativity story, but that doesn’t change the Hallmark feeling that dominates every scene. Everything that in another, better, movie would be taken further feels restrained here, as if any extremity of emotion would scare people away.
For example, it’s clear that Herod is a ruthless king who will stop at nothing to maintain power, including murdering his son Antipas (Alessandro Giuggioli). But his brutality is always just implied, never shown. This is not to say we need to see people beheaded, but it does necessitate at least showing the aftermath of his decisions. To merely suggest this cruelty but not show it directly undermines any real danger Jesus may be in, and as a consequence the viewer is left feeling indifferent rather than inspired.
A greater problem, however, is that the movie lacks energy. With nothing dynamic happening it’s difficult to become involved in the story, which is made worse by the fact that the large majority of the audience already knows the ending.
With all the gift-giving and commercialism that has taken over the Christmas season, it’s nice to be reminded of what we’re actually celebrating every December 25th. But blasphemous as it may be to say, The Nativity Story is a livestock-dying, locust-swarming nightmare that isn’t even good enough to capitalize on its timely release date. Happy birthday Jesus, you deserve better.
THE NATIVITY STORY ( * ½ )
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke. • Starring Keisha Castle-Hughs, Oscar Isaac and Hiam Abbass. • PG, 101 min. • At the Century Cinemas Del Monte Center, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.