FIRSTLY, some good news: The Nativity Story is in no way a prequel to Mel Gibson’s theologically overwrought The Passion of the Christ.
Secondly, some not-so-good news: The Nativity Story is in no way nearly as much fun as the live theatrical version we’ve all seen starring stage-struck kindergarten kids.
And finally, one reassuringly plain fact: in an age where the Christmas movie has been hijacked by rampant commercialism and all things sentimentally American, The Nativity Story marks a refreshing return to what December 25 is really all about.
In an astonishing change of pace from her last movie, the skate-punk docudrama The Lords of Dogtown, director Catherine Hardwicke takes an understandably gentle and respectful approach to the tale of the birth of baby Jesus.
It is important to bear in mind that Hardwicke and screenwriter Mike Rich had very little solid information to work with in fleshing out The Nativity Story to a full-length feature.
Only the New Testament’s gospels according to Luke and Matthew make any reference to the drama that unfolded on that starry night in Bethlehem, and neither work supplies enough material to fill the demands of a traditional three-act screenplay.
Therefore, quite aptly, a leap of faith is required from the viewer for The Nativity Story to pass muster as both a work of entertainment and spiritual enlightenment.
The first half of the picture lopes along at a leisurely clip as it sketches out the back story of how the teenage Nazarene Mary ( Whale Rider’s Keisha Castle-Hughes) and her decade-older neighbour Joseph (Oscar Isaac) came to be husband and wife.
Turns out Joe earned himself a shot at an arranged marriage after saving the ass (as donkeys were called back then) of Mary’s family during a dispute with Roman tax collectors.
A headstrong 16-year-old, Mary is not all that thrilled with her new spouse until she is visited by the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig), who informs her she will soon be with child. This poses a problem, as Mary and Joseph are yet to complete the year of mandatory celibacy that applies to arranged marriages in Judea.
The Nativity Story truly comes into its own once the couple undertake an arduous trek to Bethlehem, where Joseph must register for the Roman Empire census.
After almost drowning and starving en route, a heavily pregnant Mary discovers the only place she can give birth is a makeshift stable at the back of an inn. The all-important climax of the picture — culminating in an iconic image recognised the world over — is handled beautifully by Hardwicke and her team.
Not even the occasional hammy interruption from those fabled Three Wise Men (one of whom looks disturbingly like GoodFellas gangster Joe Pesci) or mean old King Herod (Ciaran Hinds) can diminish the lasting note of inspirational serenity on which The Nativity Story ends.
The Nativity Story,
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