December 2, 2006 -- “The Nativity Story” is one of those rare modern religious holiday films that is actually based literally on the Bible story of Christmas. While it is stiff and slow moving, it manages to create some strong characters, does a good job of recreating a time and place over 2,000 years ago, and even adds a little bit of humor to the mix. While there are some minor quibbles about the historical accuracy of some details of the film (like Roman soldiers carrying out King Herrod's orders), Christians will find that the basic story follows the Bible record and related traditions faithfully, with some embellishments to fill in the gaps.
I suppose we have Mel Gibson to thank for this. Without the success of “The Passion of the Christ,” this film would probably not been made. If “The Nativity Story” is a big success, you can expect more of this from Hollywood. There are plenty more Christian stories out there. While this film could have been better, it is well crafted and the talented cast of actors do their best to bring this story to life. While this film is serious and solemn in nature it is far less brutal, less divisive and far more uplifting than “The Passion of the Christ” was.
Keisha Castle-Hughes of “Whale Rider” stars as Mary, a teenager with a big problem. She finds herself pregnant and almost nobody believes her story about a divine impregnation relayed to her by the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig of “Syriana”). Her parents and husband are angry and confused by this very serious situation. Joseph (played by Oscar Isaac of “All About the Benjamins”) responds by making no accusations against Mary (which saves her life) and finally by accepting Jesus as his own child. Mary had earlier gone off to live with her cousin, Elisabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo of “The Lake House”) who was the only person to believe her story at that time. Elisabeth, a barren woman, conceived a child, John, under similarly miraculous circumstances.
Some of this story is shown through flashbacks a year earlier when Elisabeth's husband, Zacharias (Stanley Townsend of “The Libertine”) is contacted by an Angel and told of the coming birth of his child, John. Later, the story follows Mary and Joseph's arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem required by the Roman census, and destiny. A parallel story follows the journey of the Magi, the three wise men, from Persia to Bethlehem. One of the wise men, who complains constantly about the hardships of the long journey, serves as the scant comedic relief in the story. At one point, one of the Magi asks the complainer how long the trip has been so far, “104 days,” is the reply. “And how many of those days have you complained,” the first Magi asks again. The second replies “105 days. I'm counting tomorrow.” The Christmas star is shown as a planetary conjunction of Venus and Jupiter with a star, forming a triangle, a powerful astrological signal. A planetary conjunction is one of the theories by which astronomers have tried to explain the Christmas star story.
Another parallel story follows King Herod, (Ciarán Hinds of “Munich”) and his family and advisors as they try to decipher the signs of the coming Messiah. Herod's attempts to prevent the Messianic prophecy from coming true involves the killing of a large number of infants. At one point in the film, Herod worries about rebellion among his subjects and he wonders how people will take the census order. You would think he'd also worry about the popularity of murdering the children of his subjects. The film doesn't really explore the relationship between King Herod and the Roman Empire, but it is pretty clear who is really in charge when push comes to shove.
The strongest part of the movie is that of Joseph and his difficulty in dealing with his wife's untimely pregnancy (until the Angel Gabriel straightens him out on that point). His evolving relationship with Mary is also nicely handled. The character of Mary is handled very delicately, as you can well imagine, given the huge significance Mary has for Catholics. Keisha Castle-Hughes portrays the character with the subtlety required, and Oscar Isaac is just as good in his portrayal of Joseph. Shohreh Aghdashloo shines in her brief role as Elisabeth. The three Magi, Baltasar (Eriq Ebouaney), Gaspar (or Caspar, played by Stefan Kalipha) and Melchior (Nadim Sawalha of “Syriana”) are each very distinctive characters in the film. Their names, by the way, are not found in the Bible. It doesn't even say in the Bible how many of these astrological travelers found Jesus in Bethlehem, or where they are from. In the Bible, they are just described as wise men from the east. Their names and number came from traditional stories that have grown up around the Bible over the centuries.
“The Nativity Story” is one of those rare 21st Century Hollywood concessions to people of faith. It is not a great film, but it is a better movie than many similar religious films made over the years. The film is made with intelligence, restraint, and it shows proper respect for the story. It deserves to take its place among the favorite films of the Christmas season. This film rates a C+.
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