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Dustin Putman

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Learn more about this film on IMDb!The Nativity Story  (2006)
1 Stars
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke
Cast: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar Isaac, Hiam Abbass, Shaun Toub, Ciaran Hinds, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Stanley Townsend, Nadim Sawalha, Eriq Ebouaney, Stefan Kalipha, Emilia Fortunato, Alexander Siddig, Alessandro Giuggioli, Farida Ouchani, Said Amadis, Kais Nashif
2006 – 102 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for some violent content).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 30, 2006.
Say what you will about 2004's "The Passion of the Christ," but one cannot deny that it was made with just that—passion. Depicting the persecution, crucifixion and ultimate resurrection of Jesus Christ, director Mel Gibson clearly felt strongly about the subject, and crafted a flawed yet undeniably harrowing motion picture. Without the groundbreaking success of "The Passion of the Christ," it is difficult to imagine the existence of "The Nativity Story" from a major Hollywood studio. Hopes for financial gain aside, the picture—recounting the immaculate conception and ultimate birth of the son of God—simply doesn't make the cut.

Whereas "Passion" helmer Gibson fought to bring to the screen a story he thought needed to be told, Catherine Hardwicke's directing job on "The Nativity Story" screams of a work-for-hire project that she has little faith in. Her previous films—2003's "Thirteen" and 2005's "Lords of Dogtown"—were gritty, uncompromising coming-of-age dramas, and that is where her talents lie. In tackling what amounts to a family-friendly Sunday school lesson, Hardwicke stumbles in giving an identity to her characters and bringing a sense of scope and energy to the well-known tale. Prior to the final half-hour, where things brighten up considerably as the pieces fall into place, the acting and script are at—or maybe below—the level of a high school production.

When plain teenager Mary of Nazareth (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is informed by her parents, Joaquim (Shaun Toub) and Anna (Hiam Abbass), that she is to be married to Joseph (Oscar Isaac), it is required that they not touch each other for the first year they are together. It is this knowledge in their village that leads to much debate and hostility when Mary returns from a long trip to visit her cousin Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and is pregnant. Mary matter-of-factly sticks by her story that she was visited by The Angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) and told that she would be blessed with the son of God—a claim that tests the faith of her family and friends. Deciding to stand by Mary after experiencing a dream that reaffirms his trust in her, Joseph and his betrothed embark on a treacherous 100-mile journey to Bethlehem for an enrollment. Meanwhile, King Herod (Ciaran Hinds) learns of a prophecy that threatens his reign over Jerusalem and begins to plot the slaughter of every male child under the age of two.

"The Nativity Story" has been written by Mike Rich (2002's "The Rookie") with an overall adherence to religious iconography and mythology, but his script is nonetheless downtrodden by a tendency to pen cardboard characters and stilted dialogue. Additionally, director Catherine Hardwicke and cinematographer Elliot Davis (2004's "A Love Song for Bobby Long") shoot the film on a flat-looking, at times CGI-enhanced canvas that only sporadically impresses on a visually epic level. Worst of all, the film is emotionally inert—a major no-no for what should be an inspirational experience. Only when Mary and Jacob finally reach Bethlehem just in time for the birth of Jesus—and the strings of "Silent Night" gently begin to play soon after—does the picture claim the significance it has been struggling to achieve all along.

It may be true that Mary was just an average young woman who became extraordinary by being the chosen one to conceive of God's child, but certainly she must have been more interesting than the dullard of a person portrayed here. As Mary, Keisha Castle-Hughes (former Oscar nominee for 2003's "Whale Rider") delivers a surprisingly stiff performance whose facial expressions range from blank to coldly wistful. That the actress, only 16 years old, is reportedly pregnant herself is disturbingly ironic and something that New Line Cinema no doubt would like to sweep under the rug. The rest of the actors are mediocre across the board, including a usually excellent Shohreh Aghdashloo (a fellow Oscar nominee for 2003's "House of Sand and Fog") as Elizabeth, Mary's much-older cousin who herself miraculously births John the Baptist despite being past the age of conception. The choice to depict the Magi, also known as the Three Wise Men, as comic relief who spout one-liners is a misguided idea from the start and turns them into buffoons.

The one notable aspect of "The Nativity Story" is that, in addition to being about the beginning of Christ, it is also about the birth of Christmas. The true spirit of the holiday, although touched upon in its final moments, is decidedly slighted otherwise. After suffering through the stagnant pacing, dry characterizations and overall indifference with which the film has been brought to the big screen, perhaps a special appearance from Old St. Nick might not have been such a bad idea. "The Nativity Story" proves that even well-meaning tripe is still just tripe at the end of the day.
© 2006 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman