Program Notes: The Nativity Story (2006)
Only in the case of The Nativity Story the troubled teen in question is the Virgin Mary.
Not to worry, all ye who would walk the straight and narrow. Hardwicke here delivers a straightforward blending of moments from Matthew and Luke (with a touch of Hallmark) aimed at pleasing the faithful without so much as a whiff of controversy.
The Nativity Story’s fidelity to Scripture is both the movie’s strength (if you’re a literalist) and its weakness (if you’re looking for an original cinematic experience that reinterprets a familiar story).
Mike Rich’s screenplay begins with soldiers descending upon the city of Bethlehem and killing all the young boys. Then the movie flashes back one year to Nazareth, where the modest Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes, the young Maori actress who won an Oscar nomination for her debut in Whale Rider) lives with her parents (Hiam Abbass, Shaun Toub) in a primitive agrarian society.
Mary is bethrothed to Joseph (Oscar Isaac) and goes off to visit her cousin Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who has miraculously become pregnant despite her advanced age. (Though the movie doesn’t say so, those of us who went to Sunday school know that Elizabeth’s son will grow up to become John the Baptist.)
When Mary returns to Nazareth from her little vacation, she is rather obviously pregnant.
We’ve seen her visited by the Archangel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) and know she’s carrying the Messiah. But Mom and Dad, not to mention Joseph, are a bit perplexed by this turn of events.
At one point Mary comes perilously close to being stoned for her presumed adultery (an event not found in the Gospels but not all that improbable given the setting).
Mary’s faith and preternatural calmness eventually win over her family and friends, and then comes that decree from Caesar Augustus requiring Joseph and his very pregnant wife to trek to Bethlehem to be counted in the census. There Mary gives birth in a stable.
Occasionally The Nativity Story breaks away from Nazareth and Bethlehem to tell the story of the Magi (Nadim Sawalha, Eriq Ebouaney, Stefan Kalipha) who are looking for the fulfillment of ancient prophesies. They’re given to good-natured bickering and provide the film’s only humor, though not enough of it to turn the Three Wise Men into the Three Stooges.
And occasionally we spend time with Herod (familiar Irish actor Ciarán Hinds), the scheming King of Judea who has sensitive radar when it comes to threats to his throne. The villain of the piece, Herod is the movie’s most interesting character, an intellectual and aesthete as well as a canny politician.
It’s hard to portray a God, or even the mother of one, and Castle-Hughes doesn’t even try to put a spin on her character. Mostly she presents a blank face and lets us project on her our own feelings about Mary. Isaac gets to express a bit more range (but not much).
The real star of The Nativity Story may be Stefano Maria Ortolani’s production design, which feels about as authentic as that of any Bible movie out there. The costumes are made of rough, lumpy wool in drab earth tones, the buildings are crude and uncomfortable, and we get glimpses of daily activities like harvesting, grape stomping, and cheese making.
All of this has been filmed by Elliot Davis in a washed-out, monochromatic style drained of bright colors.
The only false note comes in the scenes of the Holy Family in the stable, which are composed and shot to look exactly like the countless clichéd Christmas cards we’ve received over the years. I half expected the guys from Monty Python to show up.
Other films in the series “Tinseltown Testament”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- July 2: The Nativity Story (2006) Rated PG
- July 9: Samson and Delilah (1949) Not Rated
- July 16: The Prince of Egypt (1998) Rated PG
- July 23: King David (1985) Rated PG-13
- July 30: The Sign of the Cross (1932) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.