‘Nativity’: Same old story nicely told

Reeling it in

Posted: Thursday, December 07, 2006

“The Nativity Story”

New Line Cinema

1 hour, 40 minutes

I’ll admit, I was not particularly excited about my choices of films to review this week. “Deck the Halls” is now old, and looks dumb. “Stranger Than Fiction” is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time, but, lo and behold, it left before I got a chance to relate that fact to you, the viewing public. Supplanting “Fiction” just in time for the holidays is “The Nativity Story,” a movie about ... well, the Nativity.

I’m not particularly religious, and I was afraid this film would, at best, give me a TV-movie-of-the-week version of a story everyone already knows or, at worst, repel me in the same way Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” did.

I am pleased to report that, while “Nativity” doesn’t shed any new light or break any new ground, it is well made, enjoyable, and definitely not “Passion’s” prequel.

Set in the Middle-Eastern town of Nazareth some 2,000 years ago, “Nativity” plays out a scenario well-known to Sunday-school children the world over. Keisha Castle-Hughes plays Mary, the young, beautiful daughter of a poor farmer.

Beleaguered by the Romans and their taxes and worried over the thought that he might lose her as a result of his mounting debts, Mary’s father marries her off to a local carpenter, a good and gentle man named Joseph.

Mary is less than pleased at this arrangement, but before any real teen angst can work its way in, she is visited by the angel Gabriel who informs her that she has been chosen by God to bear his son, who will be the Messiah.

The Messiah was the subject of a slew of prophecies throughout the Old Testament, some predicting the arrival of a conqueror, some predicting a prince of peace, but all essentially describing the same thing, the return to Hebrews the glory and status that had been known under King David.

Taking this news in stride, Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, whom the angel had informed her was also expecting. Elizabeth’s conception, while not immaculate, was surprising considering her age.

In Mary’s absence, Joseph waits patiently, building a house for them and their eventual family. A few months later, Mary returns with a surprise for the entire village, especially poor Joseph. Though he doesn’t believe her story, Joseph, stand-up guy that he is, decides to take her in anyway, though the stares and whispers of the townsfolk eat at him. Soon, however, Gabriel pays our hero a visit and reassures him that everything is as it should be.

Before you know it, word comes from King Herod that a census is in place and that all men must return to their ancestral homes to register. Following right in line comes the grueling journey to Bethlehem, the star, the shepherds, the manger, and all the rest. As I said, it’s a story we all know, but it’s kind of comforting in a way.

Intermingled with the story of our two teen lovebirds are the movements of the wicked King Herod and his attempts to subvert the prophecy, and the comedic machinations of the three wise men as they chart the stars and unravel the mysteries of the ancients, leading them to Judea, where they will eventually come upon a baby in a manger.

Herod, played with curly locks and an evil glare, makes for a good villain, though he isn’t really explored. The wise men are fun and their bickerings along the trail were probably my favorite part of the film. Fine acting, high production values, and a nice, familiar tale make for a perfect family holiday film.

My issue with this film is that it doesn’t give us anything new to think about. I think it could be argued that it isn’t trying to, and that’s fine. As I said, it’s a sweet little story and it’s nice to see a Christmas movie that’s not idiotic.

On the other hand, there are plenty of emotional issues that could be explored, that simply aren’t. Mary, a child herself, is going to bear the Son of Man. And she’s a virgin. She accepts this placidly, as should a true follower of God, but it might have been more interesting to delve into what Mary’s experience might have truly been like.

Director Catherine Hardwicke gently probes at other issues through the reactions of the townsfolk to Mary’s condition and through the character of Mary’s long-suffering, but surprisingly understanding father. But it never really comes to much.

In that there is little on screen to go beyond the well-worn tale, I’m not sure what viewers that aren’t Christian would get out of the movie, an issue that could limit the audience somewhat. However, I suppose too much exploration and art could supplant the simple story, and I wouldn’t want that either.

“The Passion” was incredibly well-made and searing in its exploration of pain and violence, but I think it completely missed the point. “Nativity” doesn’t suffer from this problem, and I guess if the worst thing I can say about the movie of Jesus’ birth is that it’s nice, I don’t really have much to complain about. Grade: B+

“The Nativity Story” is rated PG for brief violence.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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