Messiah complexities

Times Staff Writer

THE baby will fix everything. If it's worked for millions of squabbling couples, why not for all of humanity? That's the premise -- well, roughly -- of two, maybe three, new movies out just in time for Christmas with different perspectives on the Messiah story.

"The Nativity Story," Catherine Hardwicke's dewy-eyed, sepia-toned creche-come-to-life, and Alfonso Cuaron's chillingly dystopian "Children of Men" tell the stories of two potential messiahs born 2,027 years apart. The first one you already know; it takes place in a faraway time and place where the good guys are glowingly good, the bad guys beard-strokingly bad, and the protagonists (played by an Australian, a Guatemalan and an Iranian) murmur virtuously in indistinct, vaguely European-accented English.

The second story is science fiction, but eerily familiar. "Children of Men," loosely based on a book by P.D. James, extrapolates from current events to create a world ruined by religious wars and xenophobia. Two decades from now, the world is a grim, blighted place where all women have been rendered mysteriously infertile by pollution, radiation or, possibly, some kind of genetic general strike brought on by war, fascism, terrorism and despair. The good guys, if they exist, are hard to pick out among brutal warring factions, where even an imprisoned refugee complains about sharing her cage with a person of another race and where the would-be leaders of a populist uprising scheme to turn the first baby born in two decades into a political pawn.

Levantine origin notwithstanding, Hardwicke's Baby Jesus has a complexion roughly the hue of the feta cheese her characters seem to be forever hand-crafting -- the better and less controversially, presumably, to grow into his role as our national icon (as Stephen Prothero, author of "American Jesus" has called him). The miracle baby in "Children of Men" is the daughter of Kee, a far-from-virginal teenager from North London, who considers calling the baby Froly, then Bazooka, before settling on Dylan -- the name of the dead son of her dyspeptic and dissolute Joseph (Clive Owen, as activist-turned-bureaucrat Theo Faron), who endangers himself to save the child.

Targeted at the next big demographic thing, the ticket-buying Christian market, "The Nativity Story" is a gospel account of the Gospel unencumbered by historical specificity or skepticism. (The relative ubiquity at the time of prophets and miracles was more accurately depicted by Monty Python's "Life of Brian.") "Children of Men," on the other hand, has something to say about how myths are created and wielded for political purposes. In that movie's adoration scene, soldiers and insurgents briefly cease fighting as the infant is taken out of a besieged building, and a sense of hope for humanity is restored.

There's also an adoration scene in Tom Twyker's "Perfume," which I won't spoil. Suffice it to say that the movie's take on the lure of the charismatic figure is significantly darker. With its focus squarely on the divine, "The Nativity Story" puts its faith in faith. "Children of Men," on the other hand, puts its faith in humanity despite what humanity has wrought.

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