The story of the birth of Jesus is a moving, multi-dimensional one that often gets horribly lost in an over-commercialized, angrily debated ruckus holiday the world calls Christmas. Director Catherine Hardwicke’s The Nativity Story is a movie that sends out a gentle whisper over the clamoring din, a tender retelling of that story in a fashion true to its origins.
Pay no attention to the movie’s dramatic tagline about one child who would change the world forever. Even though it culminates with his arrival as a baby, the movie isn’t really about Jesus. It’s about Mary, Joseph and the handful of other people who figure into the months leading up to the birth. Simple people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, some follow their hearts, others their faith, others a star, seeking to fulfill the journey laid before them by a higher power. The story is a familiar one to many, but the movie brings it to life in a much more relatable, real way than most story books or popular Nativity plays offer.
Joseph (Oscar Isaac) is a carpenter in the poor, Roman-oppressed Israeli town of Nazareth. He’s a man of honor who lives his life well and quietly sacrifices himself for the good of others. Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is a young girl in the town, a quiet and faithful daughter who hopes for something better for her family and her town. When her father, according to the customs of their people, betroths her for marriage to Joseph, she’s less than excited about it, but that’s nothing compared to another responsibility that she is about to be given.
The angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) delivers the message to Mary that she has been chosen by God to bring into the world the Messiah, the incarnation of God and the prophesied savior of her people. It’s a charge with an enormity that at first she doesn’t grasp, but one that will come to haunt, challenge, terrify, elate and enrapture her. Mary’s life isn’t the only one affected. The implications of this divine occurrence are enormous, both at home in Nazareth and around the world. While Joseph struggles to come to terms with Mary’s situation and the decisions he must make as a result, others are also becoming aware of the impending fulfillment of a millennia old Jewish prophecy.
King Herod (Ciarán Hinds), the Roman-appointed ruler of Israel, has struggled with rebellious uprisings among the Jews and talk of the prophecy has only worsened matters, driving him to desperate measures. Meanwhile, a trio of Eastern astronomers, astrologers and mystics (who from time to time brilliantly serve as the much needed comic relief) has been closely following celestial events which lead them to believe that the fulfillment of a major prophecy is close at hand. Realizing the magnitude of what the arrival of a great king in Israel could mean, they set out on a potentially foolish journey to be present when it happens.
Matters become even more difficult when Rome decides a census needs to be taken of its vast Empire. As a result, Joseph and his very pregnant wife must make a long, uneasy journey to a place over one-hundred miles away to meet the requirements of the census. The journeys of many converge on one very unlikely spot, bringing together an unsuspecting group of people to an event that is much different than any of them expected.
The movie not only hits the sorts of stirring emotional notes that make it interesting to watch, it does it in a way that focuses on the people involved without getting too caught up in the supernatural or any sort of proselytism. Even if you don’t believe the story on some sort of personal or spiritual level, the movie is still a wonderful piece of storytelling that could be enjoyed by anyone.
Some movies about Biblical figures stray too far into the realm of creative license, like Scorsese’s overwrought The Last Temptation of Christ. Others stick so close to the written text that they end up cinematically stiff and stuffy. This film finds a nice blend between the two, holding fast to what history and the Bible say while feathering in interpretations and additional moments that really make the characters and their journeys come alive. No doubt some will complain about certain inaccuracies. For example, even though it has become tradition in the Nativity that three wise men attended the birth at the stable that night, the Bible never really says how many there were and according to the text they didn’t actually catch up with Jesus until he was about two years old. If that sort of nitpicking is going to ruin the movie for you, don’t bother going. The beautiful moments that Hardwicke creates at the end of the film when everything converges in one moment and one place will sadly be lost on you.
Like the recent Passion of the Christ, the movie has a poignant script, is magnificently acted and beautifully filmed. Of course, there are no ancient Roman regional despots around to complain that the movie antagonizes them and unfairly portrays them as the bad guys, so this movie will hopefully arrive without all the unnecessary protestations. As well I hope it isn’t excessively embraced by any religious groups as some sort of masterpiece of their faith. This isn’t a “good Christian movie”. It’s a good movie, period, and deserves to be recognized as exactly that.