02 March 2008

The Nativity Story

The Nativity Story Is Nearly Perfect

By Kristin Battestella

You could consider The Nativity Story a Christmas movie, sure. But after my recent February viewing, its safe to say this 2007 independent film is perfect for any audience, year round.

Christian or not, you know the story that’s portrayed in The Nativity Story. During the reign of Kind Herod (Ciaran Hinds), young Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and her older fiancĂ© Joseph (Oscar Isaac) travel to Bethlehem to be counted in the Roman census. Mary has been visited by an angel (Alexander Siddig) and is pregnant with Jesus, the Son of God. Wise Men from Persia have seen the astrological signs of this divine birth and travel to Jerusalem in search of the child. King Herod however, fears Jewish rebellion and wants the foretold Messiah found and killed.

As familiar as the storyline is, The Nativity Story strikes the perfect blend between historically accurate and traditional. The background and development of Mary’s family and the Nazareth lifestyle is completely believable, as is the astrological equipment used by the Magi. Even though the Wise Men make it to the manger-which we now know probably wasn’t how things went-The Nativity Story keeps things realistic yet religiously moving. King Herod is also more than a cardboard villain. His speeches and the actions of the Roman henchman set the danger factor just right.

The largely unknown cast also looks the part of first century Israelites. They work hard, fear the wrath of Roman tax collectors, and although they speak English, there is a touch of accent and mixed Hebrew and Aramaic words. I suspect The Nativity Story would have been too detached and not ready for mass appeal if the entire film was subtitled. The three storylines focusing on King Herod, Joseph and Mary, and the Three Wise Men weave the complete picture for the audience, and each looks the cultural part. Not a blonde haired buxom folk in sight. Bravo also to director Catherine Hardwicke (Vanilla Sky) for also casting age appropriate actors. Joseph isn’t a dirty old man, and Mary isn’t twelve. Hughes looks the conflicted teenager and Joseph is the slightly older working carpenter. Both put on a fine performance. There are difficult moments when they struggle with their situation and the rough journey to Bethlehem, but also tender and spiritual moments. We don’t know much about Jesus’ earthly parents from the New Testament, but The Nativity Story gives a perfect notion of what this couple might have been like. Also a Biblical mystery, the Wise Men are given names and personalities, and they even add a touch of humor.

Not only is The Nativity Story spot on in cast and story, but the visuals onscreen put the scope of the picture in context. The recreation of first century Israel is authentic enough, and the location scenery is lush. Some computer background shots of Jerusalem or mystic effects are a tad obvious, but no harm done. In fact, there’s a touch of 300 slow motion stylings every time the Roman horseman appear or when something divine is happening. It’s a subtle hint from Hardwicke that not all is as it seems-for good or ill. The music is also authentic yet lofty at the same time. The score is soft and appropriate, with a touch of Middle Eastern vibes and Latin chorals. I am very surprised that The Nativity Story was not nominated for any Oscars. Production wise, the film does no wrong.

But of course, The Nativity Story has one strike against it, as far as the masses are concerned. How is a film about Christ’s birth to deal with the Immaculate Conception? I’ve always suspected this is why the Christmas story has not been handled properly onscreen beyond glimpses or cartoons. Screenwriter Mike Rich (The Rookie) smartly makes it a non-issue. An angel says Mary will have a child, so be it. There’s no mystical kinky scene or awkwardness about it. The subject of sex is never mentioned, and thus The Nativity Story swiftly remains family friendly. It’s not about how she got pregnant, but about Mary and the burden that this pregnancy will be-for her people who would stone her, her family who don’t understand, and her betrothed who will protect the Son of God.

The Nativity Story is the perfect prequel to that other big Christian movie, The Passion of the Christ. Naturally Mel Gibson had no part in this production, but where The Passion was criticized for its lack of Jesus’ love and ministry, The Nativity Story keeps the spiritual balance and believability. I got teary eyed here, not as much as The Passion, but The Nativity Story is about faith, not death. To someone who does not believe, The Nativity Story presents a perfectly historical film where miraculous things happen. It could make a believer out of someone- like the reluctant Magi who presents Myrrh to the Baby Jesus. He didn’t believe, yet he is presenting the burial incense to the Christ child. Suffice to say, he comes to believe in the babe that will save him from death and damnation.

Believer or not, The Nativity Story is a nearly perfectly film for its careful blend of historical fact and Biblical interpretation. It’s intelligent for adults and kid friendly. It’s a love story, divine, cruel, and moving all at the same time. I’m amazed it took so long to make a worthy adaptation of the Christmas story. Any audience can enjoy The Nativity Story again and again. Pick up the DVD today.

No comments: