Friday, December 7, 2012

25 Days of Christmas Movies 2012 - Day 6 (a day late): The Oldest Christmas Story Ever

Some things are as traditional as cranberry sauce and Thanksgiving, or the birds and the bees in the springtime.  Last night I participated in a live Christmas tradition for some, "White Christmas" (which went very well by the way)...which is why today's post is really yesterday's.  The Nutcracker is a tradition for me.  I love reading the story and listening to the ballet and those traditions keep us in tune with the holiday season.  So today I want to discuss a film that deals with one of the most "traditional" stories of the Christmas season and yet one that has not necessarily been done to death in film due to it's religious connections and connotations.  Oh sure, the story of the Nativity has been beaten like a dead horse in community and school productions, but somehow it has never really taken off in Hollywood.  Perhaps that's because the story of the birth of Jesus as told in the Book of Luke has never been considered "cool" enough for Hollywood.  By the way, I'm not going "Christian self-rightious" here, I mean that in all seriousness.  I mean, how do you make a story that you see played out (badly) by pre-teens every year at your local church or school for free something that moviegoers want to pay to see?  Well, somehow several film producers took a gamble on that very idea in 2006 when they made (to my knowledge and I apologize in advance if I am mistaken) the first big-budget feature film based on the story.  Did the gamble pay off?  Let's find out by visiting the fabled manger and witnessing The Nativity Story.

The plot begins with the portrayal of the Massacre of the Innocents by King Herod (Ciaran Hinds). The story then flashes back to show Teenage Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes), betrothed to marry Joseph of Judea (Oscar Isaac).  She is apprehensive about this and initially is unhappy about it, but following this she is spoken to by God and told that she is to deliver His child and call him Jesus. Mary then goes to stay with her cousin Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo) for the harvest, when she witnesses the birth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth, who is past child bearing age, and her husband Zachariah (Stanley Townsend). Mary returns from the visit pregnant, to the shock of Joseph and her parents. Mary is accused of fornication, for which, if she is found guilty, she could be stoned to death in a public execution. At first Joseph does not believe Mary's explanation that she was visited by an angel, and that she has not broken her vow of chastity. He resolves to quietly divorce her, but before he acts on this plan, he is visited by the very same angel. Joseph then believes Mary, and promises to stay by her side. Meanwhile, Caesar Augustus has demanded that every man and his family must return to his place of birth for the census. For Joseph, as a direct descendant of King David, this involves a 110-kilometer (68 mi) trip across rocky terrain from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the place of his birth. Such a trip (with Mary on a donkey also carrying supplies, and given the terrain) would likely have taken several weeks. When they reach Bethlehem, Mary goes into labor. Joseph frantically seeks a place for the two to stay, but there is no room in any inn or home (thanks in part to the census). At the last minute, an innkeeper offers his stable for shelter. The rest, of course, is history.

The Nativity Story plays as a very straightforward and grounded-in reality (save for the supernatural bits) kind of film that portrays the famous Bible story in a way that considers many things that are largely glossed over in the book of Luke, such as Mary's disgrace and near stoning due to her unexplained pregnancy.  Also played straight are the locales, which were filmed in various places in Italy and Morocco to emulate what Nazareth, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem would have looked like.  They aren't quite the desert locales we are familiar with from famous illustrations of the event, but they are still striking and feel more real than those desert drawings.  The performances are good, particularly Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary who is suitably vulnerable and innocent as Mary, and the direction by Catherine Hardewick is solid if unremarkable.  I'd say the only real problem with this film is that it doesn't have much "wow" factor.  It is told with a remarkable reverence and respect for both the source material and reality, but sadly it doesn't really pop which is a shame because it is well scripted and acted.  Perhaps, like I said before, it really just isn't cool enough for Hollywood...or maybe it just hasn't found the right visionary to make it cool.  Either way, The Nativity Story is a well-made (if unremarkable) film that is a perfectly lovely addition to anyone's holiday traditions.

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