The Nativity Story

2006-12-31 11:13

The king grows nervous over continued rumours about a “new king” and seeks to put down anyone vaguely threatening to his rule. Meanwhile, in a small village, an angel tells a young girl that she will bear the long-promised saviour of all mankind. All the while, Roman oppression makes life hard for the people, and when Caesar orders a census, all men must return to the place of their ancestors. For the girl’s new husband, that means travelling to Bethlehem.


Fixing the town roofs in Judea is like going down to the local pub – all the guys get together there once of an afternoon and talk about yesterday’s Roman tax collection. In The Nativity Story, all the village men ever seem to do is fix the obviously crappy roofs. Yes, there’s a lot of shingle patching, harvesting and Roman tax collecting going on, and this is evidently the context of the Immaculate Conception.

Director Catherine Hardwicke takes a humanistic view of the Nativity, seeing it through the eyes of a very young-looking Mary. It’s a viewpoint Hardwicke seems to prefer. Her directorial debut, the controversial Thirteen (2003) also explored adversity among young women, though this time the sex is requisitely absent, there are no drugs to speak of, and the Holy Mother could hardly be expected to become a petty criminal.

But there is definitely a sense of oppressive authority, deliciously personified by Ciaran Hinds’ King Herod (Caesar in TV’s “Rome”), as an ever-more-paranoid puppet dictator. Hinds’ pedigree is evident and he has been given licence to bring his chops to bear this role.

Shaun Toub plays Mary’s agitated, set-upon father, as much panicked by having to come up with taxes, as fearing the Romans might take his daughter in lieu of the payment. Toub played a similarly disadvantaged shopkeeper to acclaim in Crash, so there’s a sense of familiarity about that acting motivation, too.

The same can’t be said for the rest of the principal performers – the instruction to them seems to have been: “Look oppressed.” They play their parts quietly, even meekly, and seem almost doomed to their fate, regardless of the miracles at hand.

That said, they are well cast in terms of looks. We’ve hardly ever seen such Hebrew-looking Hebrews, or Roman-looking Romans, or crackpot-looking wise men in a Hollywood movie.

Certainly Hardwicke’s humanistic, even secular, touches make this a watchable social saga. Consider a supposed virgin explaining to her parents, husband-to-be and community that she is, in fact, pregnant. And all she can say, truthfully, is that a slightly scary, unshaven angel (Alexander Siddig) has told her it was God’s will. Gabriel does look kinda menacing.

The journey to Bethlehem is given ample screen time, and presumably demonstrates that Joseph is a good man. His commitment, resolve and faith are brought into relief by this struggle, though his motivations remain a bit of mystery. This point in the movie runs the risk of being quite melodramatic, but it’s intercut with comic relief from the Three Wise Men, who ham it up to good effect at every opportunity. Not surprisingly, theirs is also the film’s ultimate emotional payoff, in the scene where the baby Jesus has been born.

Technically, Hardwicke’s scene-setting isn’t the strongest. The editing, especially in the film’s first half, is erratic and disjointed. It’s all you can do to try to ignore arbitrary shots of someone grinding corn (wasn’t corn foreign to Judea at the time?) or building a roof - which, as we’ve said, is all the villagers ever seem to be doing.

Even so, Hardwicke does deliver a film that just about skips the pitfalls of a story so steeped in Christian theology. It’s watchable from a non-Christian’s perspective, and doesn’t have the sense of pervading dogma that has coloured many similar projects. It’s not really geared to younger viewers, but it could be enjoyed by adults seeking that warm Christmas card feeling on a Sunday afternoon.

- Anton Marshall
Not a miraculous film, but a safe enough Christmas movie with a bit Roman tax collection thrown in.

Claude 2006/12/09 1:21 PM
Erratum Please, if you are reviewing a film on the Nativity of the Lord Jesus Christ, get your theological terms correct. The term 'Immaculate Conception' refers not the birth of Christ, but to the birth of Mary free from all stain of original sin.
SweetyPie 2006/12/11 8:26 AM
Fantastic It was one of the most beautiful movies I ever saw. It was heartwarming, beautifully acted and humorous at times. Can't wait for it to be on DVD so I can buy it!
Paul 2007/01/04 12:33 PM
Well done! A job well done, with sevaral issues covered as mentioned in review. The poverty and primitive life style well potrayed, and several picture perfect scenes as if from a Christmas card. I liked the three good buddies.
Mike 2007/12/26 1:33 PM
Re Erratum Actually, Claude, the term Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Christ. He was conceived without sin, i.e. without the act of sexual intercourse. A very helpful review. I'll make a point of looking out for the film.
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