Have you ever tried to explain the Christmas story to someone who has never heard it before? Last year, I found myself telling the story to a small group of urban teens. They had never heard it, any of it. No shepherds, no angels. With little Old Testament context, I found that my explanation sounded, well, kinda wacky. I had that same feeling recently while watching the film The Nativity Story. Some aspects of the movie were very well done, while others left a bit to be desired. This disparity causes the film to have less emotional impact, and, therefore, less credibility.
Mary and Joseph are portrayed as the hard-working country people that they must have been. Their lives are difficult, and Herod’s rule spreads fear even to Nazareth.
Keisha Castle-Hughes, who won acclaim for her starring role in Whale Rider, plays a burdened and ponderous Mary. Her visit to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth is a joyful respite, but her return to Nazareth finds her contemplating the reception that awaits her there.
Mary’s relationship with Joseph builds from an uncertain acquaintance to a real marriage throughout their difficulties. Oscar Isaac, who plays Joseph, conveys honor and conviction, as well as compassion. The Nativity Story gives a glimpse of what life was like for a young girl who is engaged and unexpectedly pregnant by an unbelievable circumstance. The settings usually look authentic and give a feeling of time and place.
While Joseph and Mary seem very true to the old, old story, other characters do not fare so well. Herod and his son come off looking like stock characters from the old made-for-TV biblical miniseries. The wise men suffer the most, however. Seemingly meant to be the comic relief in an otherwise somber story, they end up looking more like The Three Amigos than three wise, distinguished men of the world.
As all of the elements of the Old Testament prophecies come together, the culmination of the story is a mixed bag. The old shepherd is an earthy man, waiting for a sign to give him hope. The soon-to-be parents’ anxieties and the birth seem real enough. Yet when the three planets move rapidly together to bathe the manger scene in a bright spotlight, it was vaguely reminiscent of the Ghostbusters “crossing the beams” in the fight against the Stay Puft marshmallow man. The scene then looked more like the cover an inspirational Hallmark card than the climax of an enduring story of God’s fulfilled promises.
The Nativity Story could help viewers delve deeper into the Christmas story. There are so many aspects of the story that we breeze over—a pregnant woman’s long journey on a donkey, life under Herod’s rule, and the fact that three men from the ends of the earth knew that prophecies were being fulfilled in Bethlehem, to name a few. This film is not for small children, however, due to some violence. The movie opens and closes with Herod’s massacre of the young boys of the land, and the cruelty of Herod’s men is evident throughout.
If you are looking to be convinced of the truth of the story, go the source. If you want to see what it might have been like to live in that time, The Nativity Story might be worth a look.