REVIEW: The Nativity Story
Produced by: Toby Emmerich, Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Cale Boyter, Catherine Hardwicke, Mike Rich, Tim Van Rellim
Written by: Mike Rich
Edited by: Robert K. Lambert, Stuart Levy
Cinematography by: Elliot Davis
Music by: Mychael Danna
Starring: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Oscar Isaac, Stanley Townsend, Clarán Hinds, Shaun Toub
“Jesus is the reason for the season.” That’s what you always hear this time of year, isn’t it? And yet it seems like it’s pretty hard to find many movies exclusively based on the story of the birth of Christ, as opposed to His entire life or crucifixion. The Nativity Story is undoubtedly one of the few that does focus on this one aspect. I had actually meant to review this film long ago, when I first started this blog, but the movie’s always been checked out indefinitely this time of year on Netflix and Blockbuster (back when they, you know, actually did the whole physical movie renting). This was the first year I actually managed to be proactive and get a copy, and so I guess it’s only appropriate that I actually make good on that and finally review the film, right?
Greenlit no doubt to cash in on the craze that surrounded Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, this film was very likely intended to serve as a sort of unofficial prequel to that film, literally showing the events that would lead to the birth of this man who would become the Savior and Son of God. It seems to share similar ambitions, as well – providing a grounded, realistic look at the events that led up to His birth, particularly upon Mary as she comes to terms with her role as Jesus’ virgin mother, her relationship with Joseph, and her faith in God. The film does provide sidestories involving Mary’s also miraculously pregnant cousin Elizabeth, the journey of the three wisemen, and the slaughter of firstborn children at the command of King Herod, as well.
Say what you will about The Passion of the Christ, the film was undoubtedly not a stoic work, nor can you claim that it wasn’t meticulous in the craftsmanship that went into it, right down to the actors speaking in Aramaic. Less ambitious, less meticulous, and just overall not nearly as emotionally charged, The Nativity Story falls incredibly short of matching that film in its lasting impact. The story of Jesus’ earthly birth should at least be nearly as important to Christians as anything else He did, as the fact that it even happened – God taking on the form of man by sending a part of Himself to be born like us and face the same issues as us – is a significant reason why many set apart Christianity from other world religions. Yes, His sacrifice is the cornerstone of Christian theology, but it wouldn’t have happened if not for the series of events presented here.
The Nativity Story, on the other hand, barely registered any sort of emotional resonance – with the actors nor in myself. Remember that scene in The Prince of Egypt when Moses speaks to the burning bush? Remember the sense of awe? An angel appears from time to time here, and yet, apart from Zachariah’s brief initial confrontation, the appearances here lack any sort of emotional impact on the characters. Each encounter is treated like a sleepy dream, and, apart from any prior knowledge of the Bible, you could really begin to wonder if Mary was actually compelled to take any real action on faith and was instead, given the depiction of her relationship with Joseph, just trying to get away from the man she was betrothed to. Keisha Castle-Hughes’ reactions as Mary in these scenes (and most other scenes in the film) is less “troubled,” as described in the book of Luke, but rather more that of a teenage shoe-gazer whose parents just don’t get her, and, you know, this is just the perfect excuse to get away from them.
And it very well could be that this was what they were going for – Hardwicke is a bit of a veteran at directing films about young women, most notably for the film Thirteen, and she would go on to direct the first installment of the Twilight film saga – and that is, honestly, one of the film’s strong points, at least as far as tone goes. There’s an undeniable mundane quality to the story, as if Hardwicke and her crew were really trying to focus on their subjects as real people and not the religious icons we often make them out to be – even I had never really thought of the wisemen as being scientists or astrologers, as most of the people in my upbringing, for some reason, always made them out to be some sort of philosophers or theologians just waiting for the birth of the Messiah. I admit, it was a bit of a head-slapping moment for me, but that’s what happens when you live in a culture that tends to find more profundity in idealized icons than with the humanity behind even the most extraordinary figures. Just think about how many legends about historical figures we are taught as being truthful in elementary school that we have since learned the truth about. Christopher Columbus is a particularly great example of someone whose legend, unfortunately, continues to be spread and believed.
For a good part of its runtime, The Nativity Story does an admirable, if ultimately unsatisfactory, job sticking to its realistic, non-epic, slow-paced aura, and I admired its determination to stick mostly to the facts and not make the story anything more than it should have been. It’s still hindered by the fact that it’s often a serious bore, and the parts where there were some creative liberties taken (more so in its expanding upon the relatively small amount of information we are provided about Mary’s pregnancy from the Bible), the filmmakers could have at least livened things up and added some humor, some interpersonal drama (Mary and Joseph’s relationship isn’t depicted as an ideal situation for Mary, and Mary’s virgin pregnancy probably would have weighed more on Joseph than the brief consternation we see) – something that would give us a sense of the weight, importance, or even acknowledgement of the unusual circumstances of the task these two are undertaking.
The Passion of the Christ was actually very skilled at showing in even less time these types of details, and yet with far more impact, as when we see Jesus in that film as a little boy, running and then falling over and being comforted by his mother, or when He’s shown taking joy out of His work as a carpenter and a table he makes in that film’s brief flashbacks. These scenes stick with me so much because it really nails just how immense this gesture was on God’s part, sending His Son to become exactly like us. And yet The Nativity Story feels like, when it comes to this aspect, it’s more likely to fall into the stuff of the Christmas carols its score often borrows from, deciding to take the more sanitized, popular road, likely so as to not offend those who actually think Jesus was some kind of stoic, even-keeled guru from a bloodless, painless birth amongst some reverent barn animals. I almost expected some kind of realistic analogue/nod to the Little Drummer Boy to show up.
The Nativity Story was ultimately a letdown, but given its less than lukewarm reception by critics and the time I spent waiting for it to actually arrive, my expectations were at least appropriately lowered for when I actually got around to watching it. It’s an admirable undertaking, with some fairly authentic-looking sets, but there’s no denying that this story and the incredible significance behind it could undoubtedly be told again in the hands of more skilled filmmakers and storytellers and that their film’s integrity and quality would not be hurt by this film’s preexistence. I do think that it’s one that could and should be retold, perhaps just as often as the preaching and crucifixion portions of Jesus’ life have and will be told. The Nativity Story, for what it’s worth, is at least a respectful step in the right direction in doing that very thing, but it is, sadly, just not quite there.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 2 / 5