The idea that Hollywood has found religion gets a boost from The Nativity Story, touted by its distributor, New Line Cinema, as the first-ever major motion picture devoted to the story of Jesus’ birth. Whether or not that claim is true, the movie is the best example of the recent rapprochement between the entertainment industry and religious audiences. It is likely to shine at the multiplex this holiday season and should enjoy a long afterlife in other formats and markets.
Few biblical plotlines carry greater potential for inspiration. At the same time few offer less potential for competing interpretations, at least among Christians. The average moviegoer is familiar only with the accounts in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and sticking to the canonical Gospels as the filmmakers have done is one firewall against controversy. It is one indication they are not seeking to provoke or to endorse any particular theological stance.
Cinematically and religiously, The Nativity Story might be described as conventional. Whatever their faith tradition or disposition, Scripture scholars will not feel the need to pore over it. Nor will movie buffs. It is better suited to middle- and high-school students or pupils in a religious education program or Sunday school. This is not a slight. It has not been billed as an avant-garde, niche film offering a radical new slant. Like the majority of films in wide release, The Nativity Story is aimed at the age 13 to 24 demographic, and in this context that’s a good thing.
Building on the legacies of past screen popularizations and picture-book Bibles, it has broad appeal. How anyone might be put off or ruffled is hard to imagine. There is nothing obviously objectionable. The corollary, that there is nothing awe-inspiring either about the vibrant yet cautious treatment, is perfectly acceptable. The Nativity Story reflects the core theological concept contained in its most appropriate scriptural tagline regarding Jesus: He is for all mankind. It is mainstream, defined as appealing to the highest, not the lowest, common denominator.
Rated PG for some violent content, the picture was filmed in Morocco and Italy and boasts first-rate production values that are rarely in danger of eliding the story’s religious significance. The cinematography is marked by shades of cobalt and ecru, and crisp editing makes for a brisk 93 minutes. The olives glisten, the goats bleat on cue, and the Pharisees’ robes are impeccably tailored. On the whole, the low-key international players acquit themselves well.
Not surprisingly, the narrative proves to be inherently compelling. It has structure and counterpoint, plus relatable characters, action, romance and suspense. Like any potboiler, it has a worthy villain in King Herod, who is obsessed with a political uprising and the much-heralded Messiah. (Unfortunately, the Irish actor Ciaran Hinds attempts to conjure simultaneously Basil Rathbone and Yul Brynner. Neither his make-up nor his accent enhances his plausibility.) The action commences with his command to slaughter male Jewish infants. Residents of the pastoral backwater of Nazareth feel the effects of his harsh rule and zealously enforced tax policy. Pax Romana is a mythical abstraction, according to this vivid rendering. Mary’s parents pledge her to Joseph, and Gabriel visits while she is brooding about the arrangement.
Keisha Castle-Hughes, a New Zealander who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Whale Rider (2003), is a comparatively callow and serene Mary. Following the annunciation, she visits Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo) to confirm Gabriel’s message and returns home obviously pregnant. As Joseph, the relatively unknown Oscar Isaac, from Guatemala via Juilliard, delivers the best performance. After his own encounter with Gabriel, Joseph decides not to accuse Mary, and they travel to his birthplace, Bethlehem, when Herod orders a census. The three Magi, who have seen that the stars will be aligned and set out from Persia to pay homage, provide comic relief and verification from outside Judea.
Two previous films by director Catherine Hardwicke, Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, centered on troubled teensoutsiders looking for a way to get noticed or distinguish themselves. In The Nativity Story, although Mary does not seek attention, her youthful innocence and resistance to an arranged marriage are sensitively wrought by Hardwicke. It is startling to realize that Mary might easily have been killed for what appears to be a sexual transgression. This possibility is depicted in a dream of Joseph’s, the same one in which Gabriel appears. And while it takes this vision for him to get with the program, Hardwicke excels at highlighting Joseph’s compassion and strength as well.
While she and the screenwriter Mike Rich (Finding Forrester, Radio) enable the movie’s political, domestic and religious strands to be seen as distinct but crucially interconnected, their apprehension of the hero and heroine’s psychology is especially keen. Joseph’s decision not to divorce MaryI will make no accusationand a conversation in which they admit their vulnerability are emotionally gripping. With big assists from Gabriel and the Holy Spirit, Mary and Joseph overcome their fears and doubts together. The movie’s biggest revelation is how well it works as a love storyas a touching romance about two outcasts far apart in age and saddled with an awesome responsibility.
A didactic film might take more time with the climactic manger sequence, which feels rushed though hardly underplayed. The action concludes with the Holy Family fleeing the Roman soldiers and arriving in Egypt as Silent Night is sung in the background.
The Nativity Story is overscored and could use a little more silence. The music is pleasant if predictablewith drum beats signaling any commotion involving centurions, a celestial choir heralding anything transcendent or miraculous, and lyres indicating rural Jewish life. There’s just too much of it, and the extremely literal special effects occasionally clash with the film’s naturalism. Some details are blatantly cheesy: the preamble text is right out of Star Wars or a 1950’s Victor Mature sword-and-sandal epic; the Angel Gabriel’s perm makes him look like one of the Bee-Gees; and the early Magi scenes have a cringe-worthy campiness that is toned down, thank goodness, on their long journey.
The serious cap on the inspiration quotient is the time it would take to explore the meanings beneath the source material. A respectful elucidation in under two hours is no mean feat and, again, the aim was not to produce a religious movie per se. In the marketplace, the risk of any hint of sectarianism far outweighs the benefits, so The Nativity Story takes no chances. Fortunately, this reticence has more noble consequences than simply safeguarding the bottom line.
The press notes stress that a wide spectrum of Christian New Testament scholars and historians were involved to ensure historical and biblical accuracy. And while at least one consultantWilliam J. Fulco, S.J. a professor at Loyola Marymount Universityis Catholic, the average viewer won’t detect anything distinctively Catholic. That the film’s worldwide premiere takes place at the Vatican on Nov. 26 should not call into question its ecumenical, or at least religiously neutral, stance. Reportedly, proceeds from the charity premiere will go toward the construction of a school in Mughar, Israel, a village populated by Christian, Muslim and Druze residents.
After watching The Nativity Story, I find it difficult to link this Roman Catholic imprimatur to the idea that any one denomination has cornered the market on interpreting the Gospel. Just as there were many prophecies competing in Judea 2,000 years ago, there are many competing Christian perspectives today. Runaway hit or box-office failure, The Nativity Story is a legitimately religious film precisely because it does not choose among them. Cautiously in the middle, it will speak to believers and nonbelievers alike. This refreshing perspective ought not to be mistaken for a lack of faith. Allowing for its imperfections, the wisdom of The Nativity Story lies in the way it combats the folly of extremism and exclusion. Religion belongs in the centerin a place of moderation and reconciliation made possible, according to the New Testament, by Jesus Christ.