Kitsch nativity tale lacks artistic visionFilms based on the New Testament, about the prophet central to the spiritual lives of more than a billion people across the world, are steeped in personal experience. I grew up hearing the gospels every week. On Christmas, walking to Midnight Mass was a sort of carnival-like holiday for me and the second-busiest night of the year for my mother the liturgist.
One of the highlights of Christmas Eve in my parish was the Christmas play, when in lieu of the traditional Irish-twinged gospel recitation, kindergarden kids took over the altar dressed as ancient Judeans and filled roles as Mary, Joseph, shepherd No. 3, etc. as seriously as only children told they are doing “Something Important” can.
People without this background won’t be affected in the same way by some renditions of the Christmas story. But other adaptations bring us together ― for instance, I can confidently say that sophisticated Christians and bewildered non-believers alike will be bored to tears with “A Nativity Story.”
The movie begins with the betrothal of Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) to Joseph (Oscar Isaac) and ends with the new parents smuggling the infant Jesus to Egypt to escape the wiles of King Herod (Ciarad Hinds). If you don’t know the story, pick up a carefully annotated Bible ― it’s the single most important book in Western civilization, no matter what your religion.
There are a few things to enjoy. Ancient Judea is recreated in a way never before seen on screen. Care is taken to show how the people of Mary’s time really lived, and the socioeconomic differences between the poor farming village of Nazareth and the vibrant marketplaces of Jerusalem are stark. It’s also good to see a film that employs Middle Eastern actors to play something other than shifty-eyed terrorists.
The problem here is a total lack of artistic vision. The film hews so closely to the traditional kitsch vision of the Nativity ― complete with awkward Biblical dialogue, a soundtrack of carols and a manger scene that looks straight off that Christmas card your great aunt sent you ― that it becomes camp. The only element missing is the choir of winged angels.
The actors are earnest, and it is good to see Mary as young as she really was. But the filmmakers, presumably aiming for a grand, stately pace, end up suffocating their cast and their audience in a somnambulous solemnity. Mary and Joseph never smile once, nor do they manage to transcend their stilted dialogue. Shohreh Aghdashloo’s Elizabeth is a gasp of fresh air, but she’s only on screen for a few moments.
A piece of unintended irony occurs when Joseph passes in front of the temple in Jerusalem, unable to worship because of the noisy merchants, and remarks, “This was supposed to be a holy place.” But New Line Cinema isn’t non-profit, and to my knowledge they’re not giving the money they’re making using Jesus’s birth to the poor.
Ultimately, “The Nativity Story” is just like a local Christmas pageant, except without the personal connection that makes the experience significant. That leaves it as good for only three things ― for believers who prefer their Christmas passive and blissfully monotonous, for non-believers in need of a heated, dark room and a 90-minute nap and as a tourism video for Matera, Italy, the beautiful city where most of it was filmed.
by Ben Applegate