When I heard that Catherine Hardwicke was tackling the Biblical
story of the birth of Christ, I was taken aback. This was a woman who
made two feature films about troubled teenagers. Did this signal that
she was going to do a radical re-interpretation of this story? As it turns
out, that wasn't the case, although in some ways, one almost wishes
that Hardwicke had pushed an envelope or two.
is a stolid and earnest feature film based on the Gospels of Matthew
and Luke as adapted by Mike Rich. Some of the dialogue is lifted
verbatim and that is part of the film's problem. The words do not
sound natural to the modern ear. They are stilted and no amount of
emoting on the part of the actors can make them anything else.
So we're left with something that wouldn't be out of place on the
stages of an elementary school.

 Now I grant you, taking any liberties with a story that is the
basis for a major religions would be like committing career suicide.
So I suppose the screenwriter and the director didn't have much choice.
Still, I had hoped that they might enliven things just a bit.

THE NATIVITY STORY begins with King Herod (Ciarán Hinds)
ordering what has come to be known as the Massacre of the Innocents,
an event on which historians cannot agree. Some speculate that it
never occurred, while others claim that it did just not in the large
numbers that were bandied about in the early days of the church.
In any case, the violent deaths of young boys two years old and under
is mostly hinted at before the film spins off into other matters.

 Rich's screenplay covers the story of Elizabeth (Shohreh
Aghdashloo) and Zechariah (Stanley Townsend), the future parents
of John the Baptist; visits Persia where three astrologers, Gaspar
(Stefan Kalipha), Balthasar (Eriq Ebouaney) and Melchior (Nadim
Sawalha) are tracking odd star alignments; and finally settles in
Nazareth where the teenage Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) eventually
finds herself bethrothed to the older carpenter Joseph (Oscar Issac)
much to her initial dismay. Things get even more dicey for her
when she has a visitation from the Angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig)
who informs the teen that she's to bear a child.

 Mary asks to visit her cousin Elizabeth and spends time away
from Nazareth but by the time she arrives home, it's clear that she's
pregnant. Shunned by the town, she has to explain the situation
to her parents (Hiam Abbass and Shaun Toub) and her intended.
Joseph has a dream about stoning Mary to death for adultery, but he
too gets a visit from Gabriel and he soon accepts her as his wife.
Because of the decree for a census, Joseph and Mary set off for  
Bethlehem, encounter a shepherd and reach the town just in time
for her to go into labor. The cave-like stable where they take shelter
conveniently has a large crack in the top. allowing the light from the
overhead star to shine down on them.

 In essence, the film is exactly what one comes to expect in
the telling of the story. Hardwicke brings absolutely nothing to the
table, except for a colorless palette. The actors struggle to invest
what are essentially plaster saints with some verve, but they are
THE NATIVITY STORY will undoubtedly find an audience
in the future on cable and/or broadcast television as well as on DVD.
I can see families popping the disk into the player and enjoying
the film as a sort of living creche, much like certain stations run
footage of a burning Yule log.

         Rating:                C
         MPAA Rating:        PG for some violent content
         Running time:       93 mins.

         Viewed at the Park Avenue Screening Room
The Nativity Story
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.