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Movie Review: The Nativity Story

The Nativity Story
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke
Written by Mike Rich
New Line

With The Passion of the Christ raking in the dollars despite its constant torture, it’s no surprise that the decidedly less-violent birth of Jesus Christ gets a shiny new update with production values.  The one thing that’s missing is the wonder and awe.

It’s the classic telling:  A prophecy made long ago foretells of a King of Kings, which becomes an obsession to the tyrant King Herod (Ciaran Hinds), who orders death to newborn baby boys in an effort to quell the prophecy.  Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and Joseph (Oscar Isaac) are married in the traditional way: not knowing one another, but declared a good match by their respective families. 

During a year of celibacy enforced by the laws of the time, the virgin Mary is told by the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) that she will bear the child of God’s only son, an immaculate pregnancy with extreme skepticism to follow.  Herod orders a census, a scheme to find the child in whom he is looking, and Mary and Joseph make a treacherous journey to Bethlehem, where the prophecy is supposed to be fulfilled.  Meanwhile, three wise men, men of science, make a journey that could be interpreted as allowing religion a say in their daily lives.

Hey, look, most of the target audience will get exactly what they expected here, and they won’t be disappointed.  It pretty much sticks with the Bible.  But Hardwicke, in whom I’ve never been impressed (her critically-acclaimed Thirteen I thought was overrated, and so was her little-seen Lords of Dogtown), shoots this like someone not wanting to offend anybody, so she takes no liberties with style.  I think this is the kind of story that deserves some sort of sweep; it’s an epic and should be told as such.  But, Oscar Isaac steals the show as Joseph. He’s got the most complex character and more to do, so he might become a star after this one.

The three wise men are comic relief, which works only half the time.  These characters, among others, show how even then religion was becoming an abstract concept; people seemed to believe in God because they were taught to believe, not because they actually held it in their hearts.  In some ways, the birth of Jesus could be looked upon by the non-religious as the first Superman story, the birth of a man who would bring peace and end the world’s problems.  I can’t help but think a little bit of that bias shows up in the film, and it’s actually one of the more interesting aspects.  But, it plays it safe for the most part, which I think is smart in some cases, not so much in others.

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