The curiosity of the Christmas season has got to be “The Nativity Story,” a film which presents the story of the Virgin Mary, her betrothal to Joseph, and the birth of Jesus Christ with an utterly straight face. If you thought Hollywood was incapable of approaching Christians without a cattle prod, you’ll be shocked at how circumspect this movie is.
“The Passion of the Christ” had earlier been a shock to Hollywood. Perhaps they had envisioned the conservative Christian audience as too tiny or too ignorant to fool with; perhaps they had envisioned the Christian-bashing audience as including everyone worth including. But the long lines for Mel Gibson’s strong medicine, back in the spring of 2004, astounded everybody. And it turned out that Christian money is just as green as everybody else’s.
But is something deeper going on? The film’s producers insisted to the New York Times that they have had enough of the “cynical, youth-oriented, disposable entertainment you saw Friday and forget by Saturday,” as Wyck Godrey put it. The kind of films he wants to make now will be “about something and stick with you.” And producer Marty Bowen says he wants to make “movies I’d be proud of making. Movies my mother would go to.” He adds, “I’d rather be corny than cynical. I’d rather make a movie that’s patriotic than partisan.”
Those are surprising and refreshing words, and they wouldn’t have been heard a few years ago. But it may take a little longer to discover a way of producing films undergirded with such convictions that also have a bit of a spark. There is nothing in this film to offend devout Christians (parents note, however, a PG rating for some glimpses of crucifixion) — but solemnity rolls through it all like molasses. As the film opens with golden letters scrolling over a background of stormy clouds, and an unseen choir sings, “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel,” you have the distinct feeling that you’ve traveled back in time. No, not to first-century Palestine — to 1965, and a showing of “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”
I can’t help thinking that a different female lead could have made all the difference. Keisha Castle-Hughes starred as a young Maori destined to rule her tribe in “Whale Rider” (2002); for that role, she became, at 13, the youngest actress ever nominated for an Oscar. Perhaps her sturdy indomitability suited that character better than it does this one. Here, she just seems disengaged. Some astounding and even terrifying things are happening to Mary, but Castle-Hughes looks like her mind is somewhere else.
This results in the unusual situation that the male actors surrounding the film’s center are more emotionally engaging than the female lead. Newcomer Oscar Isaac is very appealing as Joseph, and conveys tenderness and shy young love without sacrificing a bit of masculinity. Shaun Toub is wonderful as her father Joachim, and Stanley Townsend is eye-catching as a hearty Zacharias. The three wise men (Eriq Ebouaney, Nadim Sawalha, and Stefan Kalipha) are lavishly arrayed and personable, and their interaction provides a bit of (somewhat stretched) comic relief.
A big actor in a small part steals the screen when Mary and Joseph stop for rest on their way to Bethlehem. A wind-battered old shepherd (Ted Rusoff) invites them to warm themselves by his fire. His lines are kind of hokey – something about, his father told him that each person is given a gift. Yes, dads say things like that. Particularly dads in the 1980’s. But Rusoff is notably alive on the screen, and delightful to watch. So there he is on one side, and there’s beautiful Oscar Isaac on the other, and in the middle sits Keisha Castle-Hughes, her face like a hard little pebble.
Later on, the old shepherd comes to see the newborn infant Jesus. He approaches with awe, on the brink of tears. You’d think this would be a good moment for Mary to smile and reach out toward him, and perhaps with moistened eyes say softly, “He is for all mankind. We are each given a gift.” But Castle-Hughes stares blankly as he hobbles forward – if anything, slightly annoyed — and delivers the line like a mailman. Then she checks her cell for text messages.
Shoreh Aghdashloo is warm and wonderful as Elizabeth, and Hiam Abass is effective as Anna. Ciaran Hinds is a bit overcooked as Herod, but maybe it’s the lighting. (Interesting to see how many nationalities are represented among the cast. Much of the world’s population, it seems, could pass for Semitic. It’s blue-eyed blonds who are odd-man-out.)
The strongest character in the movie is under the actors’ feet: the Italian countryside, standing in for ancient Israel (just as it did in “The Passion of the Christ”) teaches in a way no words can how very hard life is in a rocky desert land. The journey Mary and Joseph make from Nazareth to Bethlehem, one hundred miles, begins to look like a superhuman feat. Our European fantasies of the Holy Land are corrected, for example, by seeing Jesus born among animals sheltering in a cave, not in a cozy wooden stable.
Judging by the quantity of sniffles during closing credits, “The Nativity Story” hits a lot of viewers squarely in the heart. It’s a respectful and historically authentic film, and those two assets are rare enough to promise success, both on opening weekend and down the years. If this is the beginning of a trend toward movies that are not “cynical” and “disposable,” I’m all for it. And I hope eventually we’ll find a way to do it that is fresh and authentic, and not merely safe.