'The Nativity Story'
(Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar Isaac, et al / DVD / PG / (2006) 2007 / New Line)
Overview: It was the cruelest of times. Under Herod's torturous reign, families struggled to survive and yet, in the midst of utter turmoil, a young woman's faith is put to the test. Join Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and Joseph (Oscar Isaac) on an incredible journey of hope and discovery. Epic in its scope, yet intimate in it's portrayal of this historical family, this wonderful film is a family feature that will be cherished for years to come.
DVD Verdict: I was not surprised in the wake of the phenomenal success of "The Passion of the Christ" that a movie would be made about the birth of Jesus. "The Nativity Story" was produced by New Line Cinema and directed by Catherine Hardwicke ("Thirteen," "Lords of Dogtown") from a script by Mike Rich ("Radio," "The Rookie," "Finding Forrester"). The strongest similarity to "The Passion" is that "The Nativity Story" tries to accurately recreate the time and the place, from the Jewish community in which Mary and Joseph live, to the political realities of the Roman occupation, to the wretched poverty of the shepherds tending their flocks by night. The result is appropriately reverent, but it also lacks the drama and dare I say it the passion of the blockbuster that inspired it. Still, what else could we expect? The birth of Jesus was a prologue to his ministry, crucifixion and resurrection that half the gospels fail to mention, and at the very least this 2006 film reminds us why it is necessary.
For me the pivotal scene is on the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where a snake attacks them as Joseph leads Mary's donkey across a river. My immediate reaction was that they were going too far here, adding to the story something akin to when the pirates attacked the ark in the woeful television movie about Noah. But then I rethought what was happening in the scene and had to admit that it was not that far fetched that Satan would try to prevent the birth of Christ. Still, having a bit of action in the story of the Nativity goes against the grain, and the same can be said for the attempts to make the wise men the comic relief of the whole story. But at least each wise man is a distinct character, because the film take the time to flesh each of them out so that they are more than the embodiment of a Christmas carol.
The Gospel of Luke provides most of what we know about the birth of Jesus with the details on the Annunciation, Mary's visit to Elizabeth, the birth of John the Baptist, the enrollment requiring Joseph to take Mary to Bethlehem, and the appearance of the angels and shepherds. It is from the Gospel of Matthew that we have an angel appearing to Joseph to tell him not to fear taking Mary as his wife, the coming of the wise men from the East, and the flight into Egypt before the infanticide ordered by Herod the Great. Weaving these two narrative threads together is certainly not as difficult as integrating the words that Jesus spoke on the cross, so the story being told is familiar. As you would expect the political climate is played up a bit more, as is the reaction by the family of Mary to her pregnancy, and the overall result is that to make this a feature-length film everything just takes a little longer, which serves to slow down the pace a tad too much.
It is from Luke that we have Mary's acceptance of being the handmaiden of the Lord and the song of Mary ("My soul magnifies the Lord"). It also has what is clearly the key to Mary in this film, namely that when the shepherds relate all that the angels have told them, "Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart." I was excited when they announced that Keisha Castle-Hughes was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for "Whale Rider" because I was quite moved by her performance. But when I went back and watched the film a second time I found that except for the scene where she gives her tearful speech, a wonderful scene that will break your heart, Castle-Hughes spends most of the film saying little and staring at the other characters. So when it comes to her character saying little and pondering instead, she certainly has the experience to play the Mary as written for this film. But that silence does not work as well in this film and I still have a preference for the young Mary created by Olivia De Hussy in Franco Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth," although I find Maia Morgenstern's performance in "The Passion" to be the most memorable cinematic Mary that I have seen to date.
You will not get a better sense of the relationship between Mary and Joseph (Oscar Isaac), because this film does not go far beyond what we read in Scripture. That is probably the greatest missed opportunity here, but certainly trying to explore that relationship is fraught with peril and a risk the producers were unwilling to take. Consequently the young actors end up being overshadowed by the more experienced members of the cast, most notably Ciaran Hinds as King Herod, Shohreh Aghdashloo as Elizabeth, and Alexander Siddig as the Angel Gabriel. As for the irony that the unmarried 16-year-old Castle-Hughes became pregnant by her 19-year-old boyfriend of three years the same year she was playing the Virgin Mary in a movie, all I can think of if the Nativity story were to play out today is Nancy Grace demanding the law be obeyed and Mary be stoned! This is both a Widescreen Presentation (1.85:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs and a Full Screen Presentation and does now come with any Special Features.