I feel it necessary to start off this review by stating that I am an atheist. I choose not to have any religion in my life. But I’d also like to state that I can fully enjoy a religious themed movie. The Passion of the Christ was a good movie. But The Nativity Story just simply is not.
The Nativity Story is one of the most familiar stories in the Western world, and is routinely told at this time of year. It’s the story of Jesus’ birth. And this film from director Catherine Hardwicke (Lords of Dogtown, Thirteen) covers his immaculate conception to his humble birth. Following the arranged marriage of Joseph (Oscar Isaac) and Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes, The Whale Rider), Mary is visited by The Angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig, Star Trek: Deep Space 9), telling her that she will carry and give birth to the son of God. She flees Nazareth for a brief period to gather her thoughts, staying with her cousin Elizabeth (Shohreh Agdashloo, 24) who is also miraculously pregnant. Mary returns noticeably pregnant, and is at first an outcast, but after Gabriel visits Joseph, he becomes a believer to. King Herod (Ciarán Hinds, Munich) orders every man to return to the town of their birth for a census, forcing Joseph to lead a very pregnant Mary back to the town of Bethlehem. They arrive just in time for her to go into labor, and are only able to find a manger to stay in. Jesus is born, everybody is happy. The end.
It’s the same old thing we’re drilled with time and time again, every December, with TV specials and recreations on the Discovery Channel. And that’s exactly what this feels like. I’m sure if I flip to TLC later tonight I would find “The Story of Mary” playing. It has only a slightly better production value than those made for TV movies, but only slightly better. But the whole production was very bland and mechanical, like they didn’t even try with it. It’s as if she, the producers and writer Mike Rich (Finding Forrester, The Rookie) felt that the story was good enough as is, so there would be no need to do anything special to it, which is where this film fails. I’m not implying there should have been a car chase or a fight scene, just jazz it up a bit. Make me care about Jesus. Do something new.
The cast was walking through that. I didn’t get the feeling that they really even cared about it. That it was just a paycheck for them. The only actor that impressed me was Isaac. It’s sort of a breakout performance for this Guatemalan actor who is relatively unknown in the States. His was the most impressive and engaging in the film. He really captures your attention and emotion and holds it throughout. When the focus shifts to Mary at Elizabeth’s house, you want to go back to Joseph.
The most insulting part of the production is the three wise men. They’re used as comedic relief, as almost every scene they’re in (the exception being the manger scene) features jokes and “witty” banter. I fail to see why this film needed moments of levity. It’s ok to be serious. Especially with Jesus. You don’t mess with Jesus.
What it all comes down to is, was this film necessary? I think this film begs that question. It wants to have significance, but it doesn’t offer anything that you can’t get with a church sermon or a PBS special.