The Nativity Story
Pious, yet flat retelling, December 28, 2008
There's little in "The Nativity Story" that would give even the most pious Christian the slightest case of reflux. Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is pouty, but generally obedient to her parents. Joseph is a hardworking young carpenter with his eye on the girl. The wise men -- portrayed here as Babylonian house astrologers -- include the traditional white and black man, though curiously, the one from the Orient is another white guy. They do provide a few of the lighthearted elements in this otherwise safe film as they bicker about whether the journey to Bethlehem should be a spiritual one or an arduous one. Otherwise, all the traditional elements are here -- the announcement by an angel, a visit to a older pregnant cousin, a difficult, wind-blown trek to be counted in a census, camels on sand dunes, etc.
What's missing is any of the humanity of other versions. Actors read their lines without much conviction and with no sense that events could transpire in any way but the scripted one. When 3 stars (actually, 2 planets and a mysterious heavenly body) combine into a blinding spotlight (accompanied by a Star Wars light saber sound effects) no one reacts, as though such celestial light shows were run of the mill in the first century.
Every movie version of the Jesus story bring its own special touch. In "The Nativity Story," village life is depicted with loving attention to detail. Entire families sleep together in the same room, roofs are painstakingly wrought of wattle and daub and women spend lots of time toting jugs of water. And I think this is one of the few movies to depict Mary as having a living mother *and* father. The people of Nazareth act in true peasant fashion, holding grudges and having dirty faces and hands. Too bad the movie's writers didn't imbue the plot and dialog with the same sense of gritty realism. And history buffs might grind their teeth at some of the confusions, the most egregious being the equation of Roman and Herodian soldiers.
As it stands, "The Nativity Story" is decent Sunday school fare, with nothing controversial and nothing illuminating.