There are plenty of films about Christmas but surprisingly few about the Christmas story, the birth of Jesus Christ. And while The Nativity Story is not that bright, brilliant star in the night, it does adequately fill a seasonal void and add some dimension to the familiar tale. Nevertheless, it suffers at times from the overwhelming reverence that has smothered many a Biblical film.
The movie, bathed in washed out browns and olives, is dusty and dirty. The filmmakers are eager to emphasize that their Nazareth and Bethlehem are not those of brightly hued Renaissance paintings or gold embossed Christmas cards. Rather, the humble origins of the Messiah are to be found amongst the workers in the fields; this Jesus is one whose people lived in sparse, humble huts and who walked alongside beasts of burden. The earthy tones only go so far to make the story more “real” though. Even as King Herod (Ciarán Hinds) surveys the templeworks in a cloud of dust, the audience feels like it is watching a movie while wearing sunglasses.
The visual drabness of the picture is unfortunately mirrored in Keisha Castle-Hughes’s portrayal of Mary. Although her teenaged Mary laughs with friends, hustles off to sell some cheese, and is kind of peeved that her parents are marrying her off to to a vague acquaintance she has no feelings for, these moments are fleeting. More often she is ordinary to the point of dullness, passively reacting to situations rather than acting on her own. Castle-Hughes seems unsure of how to balance Mary’s youth and innocence with the popular and perhaps expected hagiographic image of her. Mary is bewildered by her miraculous pregnancy but does not convey deep concern – not for her parents, her husband, her impending motherhood, nor her own safety. She defers steadfastly to her faith in God, which is how the faithful might imagine her but which also diminishes everyone’s understanding of the mother of God (or Jesus, to avoid theological arguments).
Conversely, those around her find themselves stepping into the foreground of the nativity story. Shohreh Aghdashloo radiates maternal joy as Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, whom she visits after she discovers she is pregnant. Elizabeth is overwhelmed that she has conceived in her old age but she also shares her happiness with her young cousin, choosing trust in God over condemnation. Hiam Abbass and Shaun Toub also ground the story as Mary’s firm but loving parents, Anne and Joachim, who find their faith tested by their daughter’s news.
The emotional heart of this Christmas story, however, rests on Joseph and Oscar Isaac’s affecting portrayal of Mary’s oft ignored husband. (For what it’s worth, Joseph is my favorite saint and Oscar Isaac is one of my favorite actors. No bias.) Isaac rescues his character from the popular image of a graying, sleepy man clutching a shepherd’s staff and breathes life into the man who raised Jesus. The Bible says that Joseph was righteous, which is shown when he decides not to condemn Mary and saves her from being stoned. But Isaac reveals much about Joseph that is not written – the initial anger and confusion at his wife’s pregnancy, the subsequent excitement with which he greets his new responsibility, the tenderness with which he treats Mary when they journey to Bethlehem. One of his most moving scenes is when a heavily pregnant Mary says, over the protestations of her mother, that she will join her husband on the 100+ mile trek. Joseph tries to suppress a smile, heartened that his wife has finally warmed to him.
A few more familiar characters round out the nativity story. Ciarán Hinds dons eyeliner and permed facial hair to play the paranoid, power hungry King Herod. His murder of the innocents is the film’s starting point. Additionally, the three wise men appear not only to put the Christ child’s birth in context but also to provide the movie’s few moments of humor. Overall, the film is not a great change of pace; it hews closely to the infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke while adding a few imaginative flourishes. You won’t be wrong to enjoy it during Christmastime.
Prod: Toby Emmerich, Catherine Hardwicke
Dir: Catherine Hardwicke
Writer: Mike Rich
Cast: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar Isaac, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Stanley Townsend, Ciarán Hinds, Shaun Toub, Hiam Abbass, Alessandro Giuggioli, Alexander Siddig
Time: 101 min
Country: United States