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December 1, 2006 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | December 1, 2006 |

While I expected The Nativity Story to have the same singularity of focus as that other recent religious film, The Passion of the Christ, I certainly didn’t anticipate it to be almost as somber. From the first notes of “Veni Emmanuel,” intoned in a Gregorian-style chant that would be almost comical if it didn’t take itself so seriously, it’s clear that director Catherine Hardwicke is determined not to let joy get in the way of a good story. The film, which chronicles the year leading up to the birth of Jesus, is suffused with an odd weight, and it’s not solely from cinematographer Elliot Davis’ penchant for leaching the color out of every scene. It’s almost as if Hardwicke is determined to carry on the young girl in trouble motif of her debut, 2003’s Thirteen. But while that film was a cautionary tale of a young girl throwing her life away, The Nativity Story at times plays like an odd reverse: A coldly celebratory tale of a holy woman who’s utterly unmoved by her role in the fate of mankind. The joy here is spread too thin, and the resulting film never quite lives up its potential.

The film begins in Jerusalem, with King Herod’s command that all the infants in and around Bethlehem be murdered. Herod (Ciaran Hinds) fears the realization of a prophecy that a child will rise up and overthrow him. The screenplay from Mike Rich (The Rookie [uh-oh], Radio [double uh-oh]), drawing mainly from the Gospel of Luke, then jumps back one year to Jerusalem, where Zechariah (Stanley Townsend) receives a vision at the temple that his wife, Elizabeth (Shoreh Aghdashloo), will bear a son, who will turn out to be John the Baptist. Aghdashloo is the first bright spot of the film, and she brings an amazing dignity and grace to Elizabeth, who accepts with awe and reverence the part she is to play in all this.

The action soon shifts to Nazareth, where young Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes), Elizabeth’s cousin, lives a quiet life working in her family’s field. Castle-Hughes certainly brings the right look to the part, but all of the verve she showed in Whale Rider is missing; she smiles infrequently at best, and then grows even more dour after receiving her own vision of the angel Gabriel, who announces that Mary will bear the son of God despite never having been with a man. This could have been a powerful scene, a wrenching look at faith and doubt and fear through the eyes of a girl just figuring out the perils of puberty. But Rich’s script is too committed to adhering to the flaws of scripture, namely, the cursory dialogue and neglect of emotional insight. Mary only questions the angel once, after which she kneels before him and says she’s ready to do the will of the Lord. It’s the quickness of this change of heart, and the blandness with which it’s executed, that lie at the heart of the film’s flaws. Hardwicke has Mary shy away from questioning her fate too much, but she also keeps her happiness reined in, creating a virgin mother with all the emotional resonance of a flannel-board figure. Castle-Hughes goes about her role with a dull, beatific resignation, which stands in sad contrast to the performances of Aghdashloo and Oscar Isaac, who plays Mary’s husband Joseph.

Joseph is the emotional core of the film, and it’s Isaac’s performance that grounds the film and delivers its purest moments. Having already purchased Mary as his bride through a dowry, her sudden pregnancy threatens to ruin Joseph’s life and business, and Isaac fully embodies the shame of Joseph’s outsider status. His young bride shows up pregnant and claims the father is God himself, and Joseph has to sit there and take it. The townsfolk shun Mary for her perceived infidelity, but Joseph becomes a cuckold. There’s an amazing moment where a fortune-teller in a market offers a blessing on Joseph and Mary’s child, telling Joseph that to see one’s face in a baby is truly a wonderful thing. For an instant, Joseph’s face falls, as he remembers that he will only ever be an adoptive father to his child, but he soldiers on. Although Joseph eventually accepts Mary’s pregnancy as divine, having received his own vision from God (visions being apparently pretty big back in the day), his conflict over the matter makes him the most relatable character in the story.

Joseph and Mary eventually travel to Bethlehem to participate in the census, and Hardwicke conveys the dangers and discomforts of being eight months along while traveling 100 miles in 10 days on the back of a camel. The scenes revolving around the physicality of the ancient world work well, especially the visceral account of the infant John’s birth. Elizabeth groans as she grasps ropes tied to the rafters for support, while Zechariah waits nervously outside. Hardwicke manages to bring home the dirty reality of primitive childbirth, but it’s one of the few times the film rises above the level of emotional neutrality.

As Joseph and Mary reach Bethlehem, she starts having contractions, and Joseph’s panic is palpable as he bolts from house to house, screaming for someone to let his wife lie down and give birth. Eventually finding refuge among the livestock huddled under a rocky cave-like outcropping, Mary gives birth in what is one of the film’s genuinely moving moments, despite Castle-Hughes’ unchanging passivity. As the stars literally align, it seems only Joseph is awed by what’s happening right before his eyes. The birth is a cleaner affair than Elizabeth’s — this is a PG-rated family affair, after all — but Hardwicke still manages to create a few instants of transcendent glory.

Glory, yes; happiness, not so much. Linus’ recitation of Luke in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” packs infinitely more punch because it focuses on the heralding of good news and the arrival of something special, whereas Hardwicke’s film manages to make the birth of Jesus as depressing as Mel Gibson’s chronicle of his death. Part of it is Castle-Hughes’ single-minded commitment to portraying a Mary free of emotion, as if she was already posing for a stained-glass portrait. But the film is ultimately undone by Hardwicke’s odd reluctance to even pretend to rejoice in the story’s central birth of Jesus. In The Nativity Story, it feels like he’s already dead.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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