On the heels of the boffo success of The Passion of the Christ comes The Nativity Story, a Son of God tale for those who prefer the Christmas Jesus. (Passion of the Christ was for those who prefer the Ultimate Fighting Championship Jesus.) Passion was artistic but a bitter pill to swallow; Nativity is the prequel, a little less artistic but much more palatable.
Nativity's greatest strength is how earthy it is. The story gets cozy with turn-of-the-common-era pastoral life, and it has a very organic sensibility, both in a dirt-under-the-fingernails and "this is likely how it actually happened" sense of the word: Though the subject matter is momentous, director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen) underscores the inherent simplicity of the story, bringing the backwoods-y characters and locales to the forefront. Here, Mary is no self-aware Mother of God-to-be. She's a young teen who's horsing around with kids the day before she's told she will bear the Messiah.
As portrayed in the film, Mary's great virtue is that she accepts her role without complaint and with trust in God that it will all work out. Her arranged marriage to Joseph is similar to her arranged pregnancy by God, but Mary chafes more at the former. And when the scandal of her pre-marriage pregnancy gets tongues wagging, Mary is aloof to the dangers of stoning that she faces.
Nativity is based as much on Nativity productions staged by runny-nosed kids worldwide as it is on the biblical account: Mary riding a donkey; the star above Bethlehem; the deus ex manger; the gold, frankincense, and myrrh of the Magi; the shepherds looking on. Hardwicke presents some of these iconic images as if they were painted stills. Her shot of the star shining down on the manger could have come straight from Thomas Kinkaide's portfolio.
Where the stations of the cross was the fundamental framework of The Passion of the Christ, The Nativity Story seems to draw on the stations of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's Rings is said to be a Christ-story equivalent, but I've never been able to decode the references. Interestingly, Nativity makes the analogies obvious. Nazareth is Hobbiton; Herod is Sauron; Herod's men are Ring Wraiths; Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem are Frodo and Sam on the way to Mount Doom; Jesus is the one true ring (and the ring's climactic destruction finally makes religious sense). I'm compelled to guess that this was on Hardwicke's mind when making the film, so sharply are the parallels drawn, right down to, in some scenes, very obvious Lord of the Rings film visual echoes and production-value aesthetics.
As Mary, Keisha Castle-Hughes proves her Oscar-nominated turn in Whale Rider was no fluke. Oscar Isaac steals the show as Joseph, as does Ciarán Hinds as sourpuss King Herod. Shohreh Aghdashloo holds the line as Elizabeth, John the Baptist's too-old-to-conceive mama.
The Nativity Story doesn't have any apparent evangelistic tendencies. It's happy to preach to the choir. It leaves it up to pre-existing audience beliefs to create emotional resonance. Coupled with its unwillingness to truly be scary or chilling, The Nativity Story is a bit slight. While The Passion of the Christ was criticized as too bloody, the PG-rated The Nativity Story isn't bloody enough.
The Nativity Story
Opening Friday, December 1st