In the wake of Mel Gibson's astounding success with "The Passion of the Christ," Hollywood studios have been scrambling to reach a heretofore untapped audience that is thirsting for quality religious entertainment. No film has yet to equal the commercial appeal generated by Gibson's controversial epic, but that does not mean there have been no valiant attempts. One such case is Catherine Hardwicke's take on that most beloved of Bible stories, "The Nativity Story." After opening to little box-office buzz and a lukewarm critical reception, the film has been released to DVD a mere three months after its December release, but I think people have underestimated its qualities.
The film opens with a violent scene. King Herod (Ciarán Hinds), heeding prophesies that a new Jewish king is to be born and overthrow him, has ordered all boys under the age of two in Judea to be killed. Soldiers storm the villages with torches, breaking into houses and swinging swords, as women scream in terror as they try to shield their children from harm's way. A flashback takes us back one year. In Nazareth, life is fairly uneventful for teenage Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes). She spends her time helping her mother with the chores and sneaking peeks at boys with her girlfriends. When her parents inform her that they have arranged for her to be married to Joseph (Oscar Isaac), she is far from pleased with the decision. She is not interested in him and has no desire to be married, but this is of no importance in their society. Her parents are very poor, and a marriage for their daughter would mean not only one less mouth to feed, but also ensured protection for her.
Just as she is struggling to accept her new fate, Mary is visited by an angel (Alexander Siddig). He reveals that she has found favor with God and will bear a son and name him Jesus. Mary does not understand how this can be, as she has had no relations with a man, but the angel assures her that just as her cousin has conceived of a child in her old age, so Mary will indeed give birth. Reluctant to give her parents this news, she goes off to see her cousin, Elizabeth (the marvelous Shohreh Aghdashloo). Upon her return to Nazareth several months later, Mary's pregnancy cannot be hidden, and she becomes the subject of gossip and contempt in the village. Her parents lament that she has brought disgrace upon their family and that she may be stoned for it. Joseph, too, is furious, until he also receives a heavenly visitation.
In his first attempt to prevent the rise of a new king, Herod calls for a census, hoping to sniff out the coming royal as the people trek out to register. Having now accepted his responsibility to Mary and his call to be the caregiver for her child, Joseph sets out with her to Bethlehem to register. The journey is long and arduous, bringing the two closer than ever before. Over the course of their trip, they are left to contemplate their unusual circumstances that have brought so much confusion into their lives but promise to bring something greater for the whole world.
This is the third film directed by Catherine Hardwicke, whose two previous works were the gritty teen saga "Thirteen" and "Lords of Dogtown," about California skateboarders in the 1970s. While at first a religious period drama seems out of place with these other films, it shares with them a common interest in the personal lives of young people. "The Nativity Story" is not so much about the birth of Jesus as it is about two young people who are trying to make sense of the world at a pivotal point in their lives. Breaking from typical Hollywood tradition, Hardwick cast actors who are actually the appropriate ages for these roles, as 13-year-olds were considered adults in Jewish society. As Mary, 16-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes has a contemporary spunk, but she also projects an appropriate innocence that is crucial to her character. At 26, Oscar Isaac is much younger than the frequently middle-aged Josephs we see depicted in movies. He has a difficult task in fleshing out this often undercooked role, and he does a fine job of capturing the anger and frustration Joseph must have felt in coming to terms with his responsibility.
Some critics charged that Hardwick painted a bland picture of life in Judea during this time. This is not really fair, as her film was inevitably compared to "The Passion of the Christ," next to which any film would look bland. We must look at her movie in its own context as she has made it. Hers is not a profound statement of personal belief, but a thoughtful look at teenagers in a very strict and repressed historical period. If her visual presentation is simple and banal (and this is worth debating), it is because her characters live in a society drenched in traditions and unwilling to accept change or difference. I, for one, appreciated the direct approach taken to the story. She does such a wonderful job of conveying a sense of the ordinary that when she does try for spectacular flourishes, most notably for the actual nativity scene, they seem artificial and forced. They look beautiful, to be sure, but they lack the emotional involvement of the rest of the film.
The earnestness with which Mary and Joseph are depicted is so compelling that pretty much any time Hardwick cuts away is a distraction. Scenes with Herod are reminiscent of old-fashioned, Cecil B. DeMille epics in their somewhat heightened drama and over-the-top histrionics. Ciarán Hinds brings no subtlety to his performance, playing it up as the evil ruler. Attempts at light humor with the three astronomers who follow the star to Jesus' birth also fall flat. They come across as campy and add little to the story. Although intended for relief, these moments only made returning to the main story much more satisfying.
New Line Home Entertainment's transfer is beautiful and fitting for the subject matter. Presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen, the image is crisp and clean, with no digital artifacting. The movie was filmed in a high-contrast manner, and the transfer faithfully renders this. Black levels are rich and strong. Colors are deliberately muted, and there is also some presumably intentional grain. A pan-and-scan version is also included. Overall, this is a stunning picture.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital surround mix is also a strong asset, with dialogue coming through clearly in the front channels while music and ambience sound very good in the back. The more intense scenes benefit greatly from the surround, as we are thrust into the action. No hiss was detected. A Dolby Digital 2.0 surround track and subtitles in English and Spanish are also available.
Unfortunately, there are no special features, save for a teaser trailer and a longer theatrical trailer. I suppose the relative failure of the movie is responsible, but it would have been nice to find out a little more about this feature.
In its own right, "The Nativity Story" is a lovely film that takes an honest and heartfelt approach to a very familiar story. Families should be pleased by its no-frills, simplistic nature and intelligence. Though it is not the glorified epic some were apparently hoping for, I think it achieves what Hardwick set out to do. I'm sure some will invite this into their home as a Christmas perennial. If nothing else, it is refreshing to see a Christmas movie that actually has something to do with Christmas!