Back to Bethlehem
Facing scandal, disgruntled parents and threats from King Herod, Mary and Joseph form a bond that helps them overcome the immense obstacles placed in the way of their holy mission -- with a little assistance from Above, of course, in The Nativity Story. Starring Keisha Castle-Hughes and Oscar Isaac as the famous religious couple, this movie tells the story of Mary and Joseph’s betrothal and later journey to that sacred manger in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. Although somewhat stilted and drawn-out in its presentation, the film boasts first-rate cinematography, a realistic depiction of the period in question and an impressive performance by Isaac as Joseph.
To me, the most interesting sequences in The Nativity Story involve the way people react to teenage Mary’s pregnancy. When Angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddick) appears to her and explains that she has been chosen to be impregnated by the Holy Spirit, Mary can hardly believe it herself. It’s no wonder her parents and Joseph think she’s lying -- and that she may have been raped by a Roman soldier.
Joseph agrees not to press charges, for that would mean Mary could be stoned. Thank heavens (no pun intended) Gabriel later visits Joseph -- this time in a dream -- and vouches for Mary.
Meanwhile, King Herod (Ciaran Hinds), who’s pathologically worried about losing power to a widely prophesied King of Kings, assigns his soldiers to discover this new King among travelers as they go along their way. Because Joseph must return to Bethlehem, Mary goes with him. Also journeying to Bethlehem are three astronomers, wise men who predict three stars will come together soon as a symbol of something great about to happen. Arriving in Bethlehem just as Mary feels labor pains, the two find refuge in a stable. And that predicted bright star leads our three wise men to the holy birthplace while nearby shepherds also receive the news -- and the rest, as they say, is religious history.
Director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen) pays attention to little details that make The Nativity Story feel so real. The down-to-earth look of the people, their way of talking to each other, the type of food, clothes and activities of this biblical period ring true here. Although the cinematography appears muted, that seems appropriate to me. It lends the film a serious tone which a story like this needs. However, some parts of the movie drag on too long. For example, Mary and Joseph’s actual journey could have been shortened for dramatic purposes. And the film should have ended at the beautiful nativity scene instead of with Mary’s voiceover reciting scripture while she, Joseph and the baby Jesus ride off into the sunset.
Castle-Hughes, who earned an Oscar nomination for her terrific work in Whale Rider, was a good choice to play Mary. Although a bit stiff in delivering some of her dialogue, she radiates innocence and exudes dignity despite her young age. But it’s newcomer Isaac’s interpretation of Joseph that wins the most applause in The Nativity Story. Isaac shows just the right amount of doubt, confusion, concern or dedication whenever his character is on camera, and he’s the one who draws your eye in every one of those scenes. I think this young man is destined for stardom.
While not a perfect film, The Nativity Story serves as a welcome reminder of the humble beginnings of the Christian religion. It also breathes life into a story most followers have grown up with and love. And it’s certainly more inspiring than those amateur Christmas pageants many of us participated in at one time or another during our childhood.
(Released by New Line Cinema and rated “PG” for some violent content.)