"The Nativity Story" is the first major Christian-themed film since "The Passion of the Christ" commercially revived the genre two years ago. It's also from the director of the 2003 lock-up-your-rampaging-daughters melodrama "Thirteen." One thus approaches this new telling of Jesus' birth with trepidation, especially given the news that its 16-year-old star has since gotten pregnant (by her boyfriend, not God). Is this the story of Mother Mary, Riot Grrrl?
Hardly. The devoted can breathe a sigh of relief and bring the kids; the curious will find a handsome, disarmingly tender visualization of the original Christmas that relies more on faith than on filmmaking inspiration. If "Passion" was the Gospel According to Mel, "The Nativity Story" is strictly by the Book.
As such, your engagement with the movie will depend on your own level of belief; at the very least, it's refreshing to see a holiday film that doesn't involve Tim Allen wearing 80 pounds of rubber padding. Earnest, stilted, rapturous, "Nativity Story" takes advantage of the new biblical realism pioneered by "Passion" -- Mary is appropriately adolescent, the setting appropriately harsh -- while keeping one foot in the cliches of the old Hollywood epics. It's "The Song of Bernadette" for the iPod generation.
As played by Keisha Castle-Hughes ("Whale Rider"), Mary of Nazareth is just one of the teenage girls and boys helping their parents dig out a hardscrabble existence in the stony landscape; more somber than most, she ducks the ardent glances of Joseph (Oscar Isaac) even after her father (Shaun Toub) betroths her to the young man.
Over in Jerusalem, King Herod (the fine Irish actor Ciarán Hinds, making with the crazy eyes and generally behaving as if he were in a Cecil B. DeMille silent) wants to nullify the prophecy of a coming Messiah for all mankind; he bides his time while his soldiers bleed the poor to pay for the king's gold-tiled waterfalls. And in far-off Persia, three wise men named Balthasar (Eriq Ebouaney), Melchior (Nadim Sawalha), and Gaspar (Stefan Kalipha) fiddle with their astrolabes and, predicting the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, saddle up their camels.
These are sideshows; the Magi come off as a sort of sandy, agreeable Manny, Moe, and Jack. "Nativity Story" focuses mostly on the drama of a young woman who has been told by the Angel Gabriel (played by Alexander Siddig when not being played by a hawk) that she's bearing the Son of God.
Castle-Hughes gives an initially passive performance that broadens and deepens as Mary acquires a sense of divine mission and a will of her own -- among other things, the movie's about a girl growing away from her small-minded community while facing her own doubts. "Why is it me God has asked? I am nothing," Mary says before coming to understand that's exactly why.
It helps that her husband's a mensch. Even before Gabriel appears to Joseph, this sensitive spouse -- Matthew's "just man" -- is inclined to trust his new wife's claims of godly impregnation. When the couple makes the 90-mile trek to Bethlehem (the Emperor Augustus's census requires Joseph to return to the village of his birth), the ordeal is shared by the two in body and spirit, the couple worrying about their unborn child like any expectant parents.
Here's where director Catherine Hardwicke does try for something new: "Nativity Story" understands that the larger miracle is that of reproduction and birth -- not just that Jesus is born, but that any child is born. Mary is the film's heroine and so are all women, including her mother, Anna (the great Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass), and her aunt Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo). In a real sense, " Nativity Story" is the female other to Gibson's "Passion": Dedicated to life rather than death, it's suffused with a sense of the womanly divine.
The filmmaking feels increasingly hemmed in, though, perhaps by a fear of giving offense to the touchy evangelical audience. "Nativity Story" rolls forward with Classics Illustrated fidelity and never strays far from the Gospels, and after a while it becomes more pageantry than cinema. (Or maybe it's just that Gabriel's summons to the shepherds of Bethlehem reminded me of Linus giving the Bible reading in "A Charlie Brown Christmas.")
Elliot Davis's cinematography is picture-postcard gorgeous; Mychael Danna's score is reasonably subtle when it's not weaving in Christmas carols. The movie's going to make a bundle because it doesn't challenge anything, and certainly the moviegoers who will be most moved by it don't want it to. They want splendidly produced orthodoxy.
Good moviemaking challenges by its very nature, of course, and that's beside the point here. By the time Mary and Joseph reach the manger -- a small cave, really -- and the Christmas star beams in through the hole above, "Nativity Story" has officially turned into a creche.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an article about the making of "The Nativity Story" in yesterday's Weekend section incorrectly used the term "Immaculate Conception" to refer to the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.