Simon Dillon reviews the film
My father, who tutors students in English, was recently shocked to discover one of his sixteen year old pupils did not understand a reference to Adam and Eve in a poem she was studying, because she had never heard of them. This is just one isolated example of increasing Biblical ignorance and for this reason alone, films like The Nativity Story are to be welcomed with open arms. Even though it is no groundbreaking masterpiece like Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, it is an intimate and well told picture in which the true meaning of Christmas is faithfully reemphasised.
Opening with the massacre of innocents in Bethlehem as Herod orders the deaths of babies two years and under, the story then flashes back to a year earlier, and the familiar events leading up to the massacre are simply but compellingly told. The cast all put in decent performances, especially Keira Castle-Hughes as Mary, finally an actress who is the right age. Best known as one of Natalie Portman's handmaidens in the Star Wars prequels and for her role in Whale Rider, this could well prove to be a career defining role.
Oscar Isaac is appropriately noble and supportive as Joseph, a kind but simple man suddenly overwhelmed by the significance of events taking place in his family. The excellent Ciaran Hinds gives Peter Ustinov a run for his money as the villainous King Herod (Ustinov was Herod in Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth). Elsewhere, the shepherds are represented by Ted Rusoff, who has a small but memorable role. The wise men - Nadim Sawalha, Eriq Ebouaney, and Stefan Kalipha - provide unexpected comic relief, and there are memorable bit parts from Shaun Toub as Mary's father, and Alexander Siddig as the Angel Gabriel.
Although the film doesn't go so far as to have dialogue in Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic (like the Passion), the entire cast look and sound Israeli, and everything appears grittily authentic. One would have expected such realism to clash with the fairytale-like tone of the story, yet it doesn't, probably because this "fairytale" is true.
Director Catherine Hardwick could hardly have picked a more different project given the subject matter of her two previous pictures, and she does the job well. With the help of cinematographer Elliot Davis she creates a number of memorable images including the emergence of the star over Bethlehem and some particularly nice shots of the journey to Jerusalem that will lose much when reduced by television.
Speaking of the journey, one thing Mike Rich's screenplay does very well is show just how gruelling and dangerous such an expedition would have been for Mary and Joseph. They are constantly in danger from hunger, rivers, and even the occasional poisonous snake (a not-so-subtle metaphor for the devil). One interesting scene has them arriving in Jerusalem, where Joseph remarks that it is a holy city, only to find thieves, fortune tellers, and market sellers everywhere; an interesting foreshadowing of John chapter 2 where Jesus cleared the temple.
I still prefer Jesus of Nazareth (the first episode dealt with the Nativity), but this is a good, solid picture, and the critical moment when Jesus is born is undeniably powerful and moving. Despite the presence of Herod's massacre (most of which occurs offscreen), the whole family should enjoy this when it comes out on the 8th of December. It's also a film Christians can recommend to their non-Christian friends. Biblical ignorance may be at an all-time high, but in a world where the meaning of Christmas is lost in an ocean of tinsel and Boxing Day sales, The Nativity Story couldn't have come at a better time.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
View all articles by Simon Dillon