National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

At Last, a ‘Shepherds and Wise Men’ Feature

The Nativity Story is a welcome addition to the family Christmas-film collection

BY STEVEN D. GREYDANUS

November 26-December 2, 2006 Issue | Posted 11/22/06 at 11:00 AM

 

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 sacrifice.

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 Catholic viewers.

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 finally here.

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

chief critic of DecentFilms.com.