In an effort to reach as wide a market as possible, most Christmas-themed movies come gift-wrapped in a secular brand of sentimentality that completely misses the true meaning of the holiday. But Hollywood finally gets it right with The Nativity Story (New Line).
From the opening strains of the soundtrack – hints of the Advent hymn "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" – you know you're in good hands.
A composite of the birth narrative accounts in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, embroidered with apocryphal traditions as well as the imaginative inspiration of the filmmaker, the Bible story gets prestigious treatment in director Catherine Hardwicke's artful, reverent and deeply affecting retelling. The film has an excellent international cast and impressive production design similar to that of The Passion of the Christ, the financial success of which no doubt paved the way for this movie. (Without the blood and controversy, however, The Nativity Story should appeal to an even wider audience.)
Filmed in Matera – the ancient Italian town where Mel Gibson shot The Passion – and Morocco, it opens with prophecy-paranoid King Herod (Ciaran Hinds) plotting to kill all the male babies in Bethlehem.
Flashing back a year, Zechariah (Stanley Townsend) is told by an angelic voice that his wife Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo), though advanced in age, will bear a son.
In Nazareth, her young cousin, Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a peasant girl – still practically a child and living under the daily uncertainties of Roman occupation – is informed by her parents, Anna and Joaquim (Hiam Abbass and Shaun Toub), that she is to marry Joseph (Oscar Isaac), an upright carpenter a few years her senior. Troubled over her betrothal to "a man I hardly know, a man I do not love," Mary withdraws to a nearby grove where the Annunciation, nicely handled, takes place, with Alexander Siddig personifying the angel Gabriel who reveals she will give birth to Jesus.
Meanwhile in Persia, the three Magi set out to follow the star westward (explained here as a rare convergence of Venus, Jupiter and an astral body).
What is described with only a few lines in Luke's Gospel becomes the meat of the film, as Joseph and Mary undertake the arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, battling sandstorms, treacherous terrain, hunger and, while passing through Jerusalem, thieves.
Along the way, Hardwicke, raised Presbyterian, weaves in references that foreshadow events in Christ's life: Mary washing Joseph's feet; Joseph expressing anger over merchants in the Temple courtyard; a roadside crucifixion. In a more symbolic allusion, during a river crossing, Mary is imperiled by a snake, echoing the serpent of Eden.
Though the New Testament is sparse on details about Mary and Joseph, the thoughtful screenplay of Mike Rich, a practicing Christian, manages to flesh them out while remaining faithful to Scripture, beautifully suggesting the humanity beneath the halos.
Castle-Hughes conveys maturity well, playing Mary with all the anxieties that anyone would have in her extraordinary situation while having to deal with the disparaging looks of neighbors, the threat of stoning and the incredulity of her own parents. Her mother even hints at rape. Particularly touching is a scene in which Mary sits alone at night pondering why God has chosen her ("I am nothing," she sighs). Likewise, Isaac soulfully essays Joseph with an empathetic decency, as he quietly shoulders his appointed responsibility, while troubled by an abiding sense of inadequacy.
As to the birth of Jesus, it's all there: the shepherds, the Wise Men, etc. Despite some greeting-card gloss, cloying sentimentality is avoided. Throughout the film, Hardwicke never waters down the religious elements to make the story more palatable for nonbelievers, most clearly demonstrated when she has one of the Magi proclaim the radical truth of the Incarnation by declaring that the infant is "God made into flesh."
In a poignant moment that inextricably links the manger to the cross, his fellow traveler – after his companions have presented their gifts of gold and frankincense – tearfully offers the Christ Child myrrh "for his sacrifice," portending Jesus' atoning death.
Astute eyes will catch the shot of one of Herod's minions scouring the abandoned cave-like stable after the holy family has fled to Egypt and finding a swaddling cloth draped over the vacant manger, presaging the empty tomb.
Though placed differently from Luke's Gospel, Mary's "Magnificat" is incorporated by Hardwicke in a way that's most effective.
Amid the Christmas pageant elements, there are a few brief images (the slaughter of the innocents, for example) that may upset very young children. Both Mary's and Elizabeth's painful labor are vividly depicted.
The film's hopeful message should resonate beyond Christian audiences to a world still groaning for peace and good will.
The film contains some violent images. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-I – general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG – parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.