12 December 2011

The Nativity (1978)

The Nativity a Decent but Dated Little Movie
By Kristin Battestella

I stumbled upon the 1978 television movie The Nativity on one of the religious channels late at night and though dated and flawed, this is a nice little Biblical tale.

Amid King Herod’s (Leo McKern) tyranny and deadly Roman occupation, the young Mary (Madeline Stowe) and her parents Anna and Joachim (Jane Wyatt and George Voskovec) await the coming of the Messiah to free the Israelites.  The carpenter Joseph (John Shea) becomes betrothed to Mary as Herod’s advisors Nestor (John Rhys Davies), Flavius (William Morgan Sheppard), and Diomedes (Freddie Jones) predict a celestial alignment that will bring forth the birth of the true King of the Jews.  Ordered by Herod, they search the land for newborns who pose a threat to the king.  When Mary has an angelic visitation and becomes with child, she visits her also surprisingly pregnant Aunt Elizabeth (Audrey Totter) and her doubting, mute husband Zechariah (Paul Stewart).  Soon, Joseph and the heavily pregnant Mary must go to Bethlehem for the tax census, where Jesus is born.

Director Bernard L. Kowalski (SSSSSSS) is a little uneven in handling the story from Morton Fine (I Spy) and Millard Kaufman (Raintree County). The alternating between Herod’s madness, the journey of the Magi, and the eponymous drama is not a problem, but Herod is dropped all together halfway through the film. I was also totally confused by the three wise men who aren’t actually the magi but encounter Eleazar and another set of real magi looking for the newborn king before becoming the three kings anyway.  The Nativity also takes awhile to get going despite a short odd hour and a half to do it. Some of the one on one scenes between Joseph and Mary are a little too seventies budding love, but as the major events get going, the pace improves greatly. The dreamy waterfall conception is a toe towards mystical, but the focus is smartly kept on Mary and Biblical dialogue rather than getting too weird.  Not all the names of the players are given onscreen, however, and sometimes it is tough to know who is supposed to be who outside of the obvious figures.  The Nativity’s biggest trouble is that it isn’t as moving as it could be or spends more time on the exposition and fluff. Fortunately, when it sticks to the tale at hand via Biblical conversations and faith, thing are a okay.  

Wow, Madeline Stowe looks so young!  The Last of the Mohicans star does seem a little untrained- even hokey and cross eyed in a few moments with Joseph! However, she is playing the teenaged future mother of Christ, so the innocence and youthful nervousness fits.  She’s pretty- probably a little too Hollywood looking compared to what Mary really looked like- but Stowe keeps things natural, lovely, and humble.  Likewise, John Shea (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) is shy as the poor carpenter and would be pursuer of Mary, but he speaks up and stands strong against the Roman abuses. Joseph doesn’t exactly have it easy, either.  We know so little about the guy except that he had to take a lot on faith! Shea handles the difficulty and trust well, though I do wonder if that beard is genuine. The two leads make a cute couple, and fit together as Mary and Joseph, but their early scenes are a little boring, or again played too Love Story with sappy, annoying, intrusive music overtaking their soft dialogue in an unnecessary attempt at more poignancy. 

Thankfully, Jane Wyatt (Father Knows Best) and George Voskovec (12 Angry Men) are lovely as the supportive parents who also have much to handle and do so with a lot of class. Of course, John Rhys Davies (Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones) is always a lot of fun as the feisty and disbelieving royal advisor Nestor, and  William Morgan Sheppard (Max Headroom) and Freddie Jones (Dune) have plenty of cranky debates as the trio comes to appreciate the True King. I really wish their part in The Nativity were better realized. Audrey Totter (The Postman Always Rings Twice) and Paul Stewart (Citizen Kane) are also lovely, but barely there as Elizabeth and Zachariah.

The Spanish locations, however, look surprisingly ancient and Middle Eastern.  Though the opening Roman battle scenes are a little weak, they do establish the fear and oppression atmosphere just fine and don’t take up too much of the plot. Leo McKern (A Man for All Seasons) as Herod and his palace are somewhat low budget seventies television over the top, but again, this makes it easier for us to dislike the evil king and his bad girl daughter Salome (Kate O’Mara, Dynasty).   The creche cave and Star finale look authentic as well, being historically realistic yet allowing room for belief in miracles. The costumes are kind of fifties bright and colorful, but set that Biblical robes and dressings mood we expect. I don’t really know if they had such shiny gold plated menorahs back in the day, but dang I’d like to have a big sweet one like that!

Yes, we already have a lovely retelling in The Nativity Story, and I would love to see an unofficial sequel on the life of Christ to create a loose trilogy with The Passion.  However, the screenplay here highlighting the nutty Herod along with Mary and Joseph, feels due for an update. In the end, the datedness, low budget production, and uneven presentation hinders what should be a beautiful and essential tale.  However, The Nativity is still great for a classroom or study group comparison or a December family viewing- but it isn’t available on DVD. Typical!  Imperfect yes, but you can’t really go wrong with The Nativity.

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