3 stars (out of four)
Few stories are more familiar than the one told in "The Nativity Story"--a new film about the trials of Mary and Joseph, the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the birth of Christ. So it seems a wonder at times that director Catherine Hardwicke and writer Mike Rich still manage to make the tale seem fresh and vital.
Their movie is reverent without seeming too pious-minded and loving without being sticky. And it has actors in the central roles, Keisha Castle-Hughes and Oscar Isaac, who are young, beautiful, even a bit lusty-looking, and who don't fit the usual cliched image of Mary, the immaculate virgin, and Joseph, her aging protector.
Hardwicke became famous for "Thirteen," a realistic contemporary drama about youthful delinquency and sexuality--and, as you'd expect, she doesn't deliver a typical religious movie. Covering the events from the time of Zechariah's vision in the temple up to Herod's massacre of the innocents, and the flight of Mary and Joseph into Egypt, Hardwicke and Rich retell the story with art and simplicity, without the characters becoming creche figurines.
Herod's massacre is their framing device. We see the mad monarch ordering the slaughter at the beginning, and then we move back to the events that led up to it: the birth of John the Baptist, the lunacies of Herod and his tax plan, the long journey of Joseph and Mary into Bethlehem, and the Nativity as witnessed by the shepherds and the Three Wise Men--Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar.Throughout, Hardwicke keeps us aware of the danger and primitivism of the places around Mary and Joseph--and Jesus.
This movie isn't an intense visceral shocker like Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Nor is it a groundbreaking neo-realist depiction, like Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1964 "The Gospel According to St. Matthew"--although Hardwicke stages much of her film near the ancient but well-preserved Italian village of Matera, where both Gibson and Pasolini shot the main parts of their movies.
The moviemakers haven't embossed "Nativity Story" with greeting card imagery or sentimentalized, overdramatized or stuffed it with contemporary political parallels. Instead, they've told the story with a measured seriousness but also with an often fiery, youthful quality.
New Zealander Castle-Hughes, the young Oscar-nominated star of "Whale Rider," brings this film some of the liveliness and joy that infused that role. Isaac is a 2005 graduate of the Juilliard Academy, and he brings the part a freshness and vulnerability it usually doesn't have.
Herod is the Irish actor Ciaran Hinds, who played Julius Caesar in HBO's "Rome." Others in the cast include Hiam Abbass ("Paradise Now") as Anna, Mary's mother, and Shohreh Aghdashloo, the Oscar-nominated Iranian actress who played the wife in "House of Sand and Fog," is Elizabeth, Zechariah's wife and John's mother. A hunky-looking actor, Alexander Siddig, is the Angel Gabriel, and the interchanges among the Wise Men, especially the ones involving skeptical Gaspar (Stefan Kalipha), are often played for a bit of gentle humor.
Scriptwriter Rich, who initiated the project, has gone to great lengths to keep the characters plausibly motivated and the movie tasteful. And Hardwicke, who began her film career as a production designer, has done her best to make it look and sound beautiful. The modernistic score is by Mychael Danna, who works most often with Canada's often audacious experimentalist Atom Egoyan ("The Sweet Hereafter").
"The Nativity Story" surprised me. I didn't expect such an obvious art film approach. Yet the Bible, in the King James version, is great English literature, and it's just as capable of a more elevated style--as we see in John Huston's epic "The Bible"--as it is of the popular storytelling we see in the shamelessly operatic Cecil DeMille movies, or the gorier excesses of Gibson's "Passion.""Nativity Story" lacks a certain excitement and narrative depth, but it is capable of pleasing, on some level, believers and skeptics alike. Ironically, it became embroiled in a local political-religious controversy when the city turned down a proposed sponsorship from the film's studio for this year's Christkindlmarket--an arrangement that would have involved showing clips from the film.
I wasn't much moved by "Nativity"--perhaps it was too careful and intelligent--but, as I watched it, I could sense some of the urgency of its belief, the universality of its themes of God, loneliness and redemption. "Nativity" is a movie that may not take full advantage of its tale but doesn't betray it either.
'The Nativity Story'
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke; written by Mike Rich; photographed by Elliot Davis; edited by Robert K. Lambert, Stuart Levy; production designed by Stefano Maria Ortolani; music by Mychael Danna; produced by Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey. A New Line Cinema release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:42. MPAA rating: PG (for some violent content).
Mary - Keisha Castle-Hughes
Joseph - Oscar Isaac
Anna - Hiam Abbass
Joaquim - Shaun Toub
King Herod - Ciaran Hinds
Elizabeth - Shohreh Aghdashloo