The Nativity Story
The Nativity Story (opening December 1 throughout San Diego) recounts the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. Although the week after Thanksgiving is generally not a good one for film attendance, New Line Cinema is hoping that the film will appeal to families looking for a break from the holiday mauling at the mall.
Bible stories have always been popular in Hollywood. Mel Gibsons The Passion of the Christ may be a recent box office winner but it is by no means the first film to tap the scriptures for success. Back in the silent days, Cecil B. DeMille discovered the appeal of reveling in decadence and sin as part of Biblical tales about redemption or Gods wrath. Later he enjoyed the epic scope of The Ten Commandments , and dare I say, found sexy appeal in the sword and sandal films where so much skin could be exposed without raising any disapproval. There were also sprawling sagas such as The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Bible . These Biblical epics proved irresistible to an adolescent Martin Scorsese who fantasized about making one of his own. He eventually did tackle a Christ story with his flawed yet brilliant The Last Temptation of Christ , which stirred controversy for showing a very human Christ.
Keisha Castle-Hughes stars as Mary in The Nativity Story
This years The Nativity Story taps into this long tradition of Bible tales and aspires to show a more human side to its well-known and iconic figures. The phenomenal financial success of Gibsons The Passion of the Christ probably made funding The Nativity Story a little easier than it might have been just a few years earlier. The press materials, striving to inflate the film with portentous weight, boasts that its a cinematic journey into the heart of historys greatest story, The Nativity Story is poised to come to the big screen for the first time in a major motion picture event. New Line Cinemas The Nativity Story chronicles the arduous journey of two people, Mary and Joseph, a miraculous pregnancy, and the history-defining birth of Jesus.
But this major motion picture event plays more like a small screen after school special or a Sunday school video. Writer Mike Rich ( The Rookie, Finding Forrester ) and director Catherine Hardwicke ( Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown ) try to show the teenage Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and her husband-to-be Joseph (Oscar Isaac) as ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances. The filmmakers desperately want to create a film where the characters feel real rather than like larger than life icons. Unfortunately such aspirations are artistically beyond their grasp. You can see what they are trying to do but you also see how far short they are falling.
The production design (by Stefano Maria Ortolani) has a very made-for-TV appearance. Nothing looks quite lived in and extras are always walking through carrying some artifactbasket, water jug, bundle of woodthat seems calculated to prove that the design staff did some research. But you have the feeling that if the camera panned just a little to the left or right youd see a a catering truck and trailers for the actors. We simply don't feel like the world we're presented with in one that's lived in. It feels more like a Disneyland's The Nativity Set.
The Nativity Story
Hardwicke, who may have been hired because shes dealt with young characters in her previous films, tries to show what life might have been like for a teenage girl like Mary. One day shes playing with her friends, running through the field like a child and the next day she finds herself in an arranged marriage with a man she doesnt know. But showing a bunch of giggling girls like the high schoolers in Thirteen , isnt really digging deep for insight. And when Joseph eyes Mary, his friend nudges him like the skaters in Lords of Dogtown checking out the local talent and saying "Hey she's a hottie." That just plays as anachronistic rather than humanizing the young Joseph. Hardwicke tries to apply whats shes done in her contemporary teen films to this period tale but it doesnt quite work. None of her characters fully live or breath in this film.
The casting of Keisha Castle-Hughes is good. This fine young actress brings a maturity and natural grace to the role. But with Richs less than inspired script she ends up a little lost and one-dimensional. The only other performer to achieve any naturalism is Shohreh Aghdashloo as Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Aghdashloo has become Hollywoods token Middle Eastern actress, and while shes a fine performer, it would be nice if they started to look beyond her for some additional talent that can be found in abundance in the many fine Iranian films still coming out of that country. The men of The Nativity Story fare far less well. They are earnest yet wooden in their efforts. Theres also the oddity of having the three wise men being turned into the comic relief of the film.
Having been raised by a Catholic mother and an agnostic father who read me the Bible every night because he thought it was a beautiful work of literature, I grew up with a unique perspective on these religious stories. They were about both faith and art. The Nativity Story captures neither. It neither radiates with an inspiring sense of faith nor does it find the beauty of the storytelling.
The Nativity Story (rated PG for some violent content) is a sincere but ultimately uninspired work. For a film that does capture a more vivid sense of the drama and the mystery within this Biblical story, check out Franco Zeffirellis TV mini-series Jesus of Nazareth with a radiant Olivia Hussey as Mary. When it came out in 1977, I remember it stirred controversy for, among other things, showing Mary going through labor to deliver the baby Jesus. But after the various controversies over the Biblical themed films of Martin Scorsese and Mel Gibson, Zeffirelli's film is now referred to as a reverent adaptation.
Companion viewing: Jesus of Nazareth, The Passion of the Christ, Jesus Christ Superstar, Whistle Down the Wind, The Whale Rider