The Nativity Story
2006Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Cast: Shohreh Aghdashloo, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar Isaac
ased on my knowledge of Catherine Hardwicke (to sum up, I’ve seen Thirteen), I was hardly surprised when her version of the Christmas story featured a barely pubescent Virgin Mary wracked with pain before birthing a mucus-covered infant. But immediately after this scene, three stars aligned in the sky, producing a heavenly beam of light, which proceeded to gently illuminate the ultimate holiday card. Striking a balance between realism and reverence is neither an original nor necessarily an interesting feat. Still, cavalier tone aside, The Nativity Story successfully choked me up when those stars aligned.
From the opening notes of the score (“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”), The Nativity Story promises to uphold centuries of extra-Biblical tradition—the Magi even refer to themselves as Balthasar, Gaspar, and Melchior. Despite the many splendid legends surrounding Jesus’ birth, The Nativity Story adopts an understated style. With a non-Aryan cast and naturalistic art direction and costumes, the film boasts historical accuracy. The story unfolds quietly, even plausibly. Only in rare, especially grand moments do the familiar Christmas pageantries return (such as an inspired rendition of “Carol of the Bells” as Mary goes into labor).
This restraint suits the Nazareth setting, a humble village wracked by civil unrest. Roman soldiers crucify men in trees, kidnap children in lieu of tax payments, and perform other oppressive deeds. Only religious heritage holds the fragile community together as children echo the stories of their elders, recalling prophetic promises of deliverance. God, however, seems far removed from these people’s lives (excluding stray scenes where an ungainly angel morphs into a bird or a man is confronted by a supernatural presence from a Monty Python sketch).
When God does intervene, he chooses Mary to bear his son. She wonders why she has been chosen by God, saying, “I am nothing.” We believe Mary; she is sweet and obedient, but hardly warrants a glowing halo. She is cherished by her village, but then again, all of the children are loved. Her normalcy reaffirms the message of The Nativity Story: Jesus came for the downtrodden and the unremarkable. The movie does not break new theological ground here, but the unromantic characterization of Mary is pleasingly non-hypocritical. Keisha Castle-Hughes turns in a nice performance, vacillating between the “I am young, but have eyes both old and wise” technique and genuinely spontaneous interactions with her husband, Joseph (an excellent Oscar Isaac).
In the relationship between Joseph and Mary, The Nativity Story reaches its greatest heights. Although the couple are nearly fifteen years apart in age, the romance never seems like cradle-robbing (aside from its uncomfortable introduction, in which Joseph stares longingly as Mary runs by with a group of other children). The Nativity Story distances itself from a modern context, easing into ancient social customs without a backwards glance.
The heart of the story lies with Joseph, who bravely tries to comprehend how his beloved child bride could bear God incarnate. Even as Joseph tries to keep his chin up, he is plagued by self-doubt, wondering what he could possibly teach his adopted son. His ostracizing community, meanwhile, is scandalized by his pregnant wife, and the sweetly taciturn Virgin offers nary a word of support. Joseph’s only comforter is an angel, who, as we have already established, is not a very convincing beacon of God.
I hardly think I’m spoiling the story here, to say that God eventually manifests himself beyond the shadow of a doubt. It’s not so much the bloody newborn, although Joseph’s face lights up with pure joy upon Jesus’ birth. No, it’s the enormous fucking beam of light. In one of the most beloved stories of the Christian tradition, we are finally assured of God’s touch. In human terms, Joseph’s concerns and doubts are alleviated; his faith, rewarded. And however irritatingly photogenic the moment is, it works. If nothing else, we have witnessed an uncommonly bearable nativity scene.
The Nativity Story is currently playing in wide release.
By: L. Michael Foote
Published on: 2006-12-22