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The Nativity Story is a welcome addition to the family Christmas-film collection
BY STEVEN D. GREYDANUS
Bible scholars tell
us that the passion narratives in the Gospels represent the earliest stage in
the development of New Testament tradition regarding the life of Christ.
How Jesus suffered, died and was
raised was of paramount importance in the earliest days of the Church; interest
in his birth and infancy came later, leading to the infancy narratives of Sts.
Matthew and Luke.
It is fitting, then, that the
success of The Passion of the Christ
paved the way for The Nativity Story.
Previous Jesus films have
generally sought to cover the whole story, whether according to one particular
Gospel (Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew) or
synoptically (the 1977 miniseries Jesus
of Nazareth). By contrast, The
Passion and The Nativity Story,
like earlier forms of Christian drama, are narrower in scope — modern
equivalents of the medieval passion play and Christmas/Epiphany pageant.
Astonishingly, The Nativity Story is essentially the
first major “shepherds and wise men” feature film in Hollywood
history. There’s never been any shortage of Christmas movies, of course. Yet
even at the height of Hollywood biblical
epics, the real meaning of Christmas was essentially ignored.
The Nativity Story goes a long way toward redressing this historic omission. Written by Mike
Rich (The Rookie) and directed by
Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen), the film weaves and elaborates the infancy narratives of
Matthew and Luke into a character-centered tale of faith, calling and
In a sense, most retellings of the
Nativity story tend to be “Lucan” in that, like
Luke’s infancy narrative, they focus more on Mary than Joseph. The Nativity Story is more “Matthean,” emphasizing Joseph’s character-arc. The film
includes the Lucan incidents of the Annunciation and
Visitation to Elizabeth,
but it’s through Joseph’s eyes that we see Mary’s departure, her absence for
three months and her return just as she begins to show.
It’s in these scenes, fleshing out
the human dimension of what the terse biblical narratives merely imply, that The
Nativity Story is at its best. The tender relationship between young Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and the older Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is touchingly
drawn. And the public shame and scandal faced by Mary returning to Nazareth, and by Joseph
(charismatic newcomer Oscar Isaac) if he stands by her, is vividly portrayed.
Even after the angelic appearance
in his dream, Joseph continues to wrestle with uncertainty and doubt, notably
in an affecting moment on the journey to Bethlehem
involving an innocent comment from a street vendor. Orthodox journalist Terry
Mattingly observed that this depiction of Joseph’s ongoing struggles converges
with a tradition in Eastern iconography depicting St. Joseph troubled by the devil even during
the Nativity itself.
What is not in keeping with
Orthodox iconography, or with the oldest Catholic tradition, is the depiction
of Joseph as a younger man. He’s often seen as a older
widower with children by an earlier marriage.
What matters more is the film’s
avoidance of the kind of love-story approach to Joseph and Mary’s relationship
seen in some earlier treatments. Here, on the contrary, Mary is at first averse
to the arranged betrothal, only gradually coming to respect and be grateful for
the man the Lord has chosen to be father to her son. While necessarily speculative,
this seems a plausible approach both psychologically and theologically.
While Mary’s perpetual virginity
and Immaculate Conception aren’t affirmed, they aren’t contradicted either.
It’s fair to say that the movie’s driving religious sensibility is more
Protestant than Catholic, but nothing here need be a serious obstacle for
There are a few unfortunate
flourishes, such as “Favored one” rather than “Full of grace” in the greeting
of Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) to Mary, a rather limp
translation. But there is much to praise about The Nativity Story.
The film is anchored by an earthy
authenticity in production design and a solid cast led by Isaac’s sensitive,
compelling Joseph and Aghdashloo’s warmly maternal
Elizabeth. Castle-Hughes’ Mary has some strong moments, but doesn’t emerge as
vividly as Joseph or Elizabeth. The score, by composer Mychael
Danna, eschews the standard Middle-Eastern musical texture used in recent Bible
films. It relies instead on traditional Christian music, including chant and
early Christmas melodies, such as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
The film’s faults, such as they
are, tend to be of omission rather than commission. At the Annunciation, we
have Mary’s words “Let it be done to me according to your word” — but not “I am
the Lord’s handmaid.” Such omissions are all the odder precisely because the
whole challenge with these scenes is the paucity of source material.
Alas, Mary’s Magnificat,
originally omitted altogether, is treated only briefly
and in part, in a voiceover at the end of the film. The move
itself actually makes sense — yet why omit the magnificent opening line
from which the prayer takes its name (“My soul magnifies the Lord…”)? Why
include “The Lord has done great things” and omit “for me”?
Perhaps most glaringly, while The Nativity Story depicts the Magi’s
visit to King Herod, it omits Herod’s consultation with the scribes and the Bethlehem prophecy of
Micah 5:2. Instead, Herod already has his eye on Bethlehem because of Caesar’s decree, which
would send the coming Son of David back to his ancestral home.
Historical purists may object to
the juxtaposition of the shepherds and the wise men on the night of Christmas,
though this conflation is a well-established tradition in depicting the Nativity.
The broad comic-relief use of the Magi may seem jarring to some; certainly it
underscores the family-film milieu.
Yet all of these are comparatively
minor issues in a film that is bound to become regular Advent and Christmas
viewing for countless Catholic and Protestant families. I know it will be for
our family. We’ll still watch It’s a
Wonderful Life, but now we’ll also have The
Nativity Story, just as we have The
Miracle Maker for Easter.
The Nativity Story has been a long time coming. It’s a most welcome addition now that it’s
Content advisory: Brief, mostly implied deadly
menace to infants; a Jewish girl taken forcibly from her parents; a couple of
fairly brief, non-graphic, but somewhat intense childbirth scenes. Might be too much for sensitive children.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and
critic of DecentFilms.com.