It’s quite a bold move to feature the biggest understatement of all millennia as a film’s tagline. Posters for “The Nativity Story” read “Her child would change the world,” and all of us – Catholic, atheist or somewhere in between – can agree that Mary’s child has done that and more. The film, of course, isn’t actually about that illustrious child. “The Nativity Story” is an account of the time into which he was born and, more specifically, an earnest, respectable and totally unoriginal portrayal of his young mother’s struggle.
The plotline of “The Nativity Story” should need no introduction. About 2,000 years ago in a small Judean village called Nazareth, a young girl named Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes, “Whale Rider”) is visited by an angel and told she will bear the savior of mankind. Beneath the iron-fisted rule of King Herod and his ruthless Roman overlords – where the poor toil only to be plundered by the powerful – a savior has long been foretold, and the king will stop at nothing to destroy this potential threat to his rule. If the child is to even come into the world, let alone survive long enough to save it, his mother and her husband, Joseph, must escape the soldiers sent to destroy it.
If she were in any other film, poor little Keisha Castle-Hughes would never reach the Tom Cruise/Mel Gibson category of stars whose private lives interfere with the marketing of their films, but her current pregnancy at age 16 has afforded the young Australian actress more publicity than even her Oscar nomination for “Whale Rider” two years ago. Despite the absurd Internet rumors of a Catholic boycott, Castle-Hughes’s sincere, stoic performance is certainly among the few bright spots of the film.
Though it’s an honorable and, at times, beautiful production, “The Nativity Story” offers only a straight, undiluted account of mainstream scripture. That may be enough for Middle America in December, but it leaves much to be desired nonetheless. The film simply has nothing new to offer to a story everyone already knows inside and out. That doesn’t mean changing the plot, but, as a century of cinema has taught us, there are a thousand ways to tell a good story, and we’re coming up with new ones all the time. This film just picks the most routine, nonchalant method and does nothing to make this production stand out.
Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” had a fresh, fractured structure and dream-like aesthetics (not to mention shocking brutality) that captured our attention as an inspired take on an old story. The difference is a vision in filmmaking – “The Nativity Story” clings to the straight narrative of the Bible, and no matter how beautiful or sincere, this production ultimately fails in distinguishing itself among its peers.
Jesus on the Silver Screen
A look at some our favorite Bible interpretations:
Life of Brian (1979): Monty Python in fine form. Nothing screams cinematic evangelism like an acting troupe of crazy Brits on crucifixes.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988): Martin Scorsese has a stalwart Willem Dafoe (as Jesus Himself) make holy communion with one Mary Magdalene – much to the church’s (world’s) displeasure.
Dogma (1999): Jay and Silent Bob bumble alongside a plot involving archangels Ben Affleck and Matt Damon conspiring against the Creator, played by Alannis Morisette.
The Passion of the Christ (2004): Despite the beginning of the end for actor/director Mel Gibson’s public image (including accusations of anti-Semitism), it endured tepid critical response to become one of the highest-grossing movies of all time.
The Nativity Story
At the Showcase and Quality 16
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars