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November 29-December 5, 2006

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'The Nativity Story'

Photograph by Jaimie Trueblood
Meet the parent: Keisha Castle-Hughes plays Mary in 'The Nativity Story.'

Time for Mary

'The Nativity Story' is the glummest story ever told

By Richard von Busack

PAPA, DON'T PREACH! That's the unofficial motto of The Nativity Story, the glummest story ever told. A stony part of Italy stands in for the Holy Land. Elliot Davis' cold-weather photography makes every sharp, shingly hill a mini-Golgotha. The film doesn't spare the hardships of occupied Judea: a few PG-rated crucifixions occur, and the Romans are always helping themselves to the local womenfolk. Mary herself almost gets the adulteress's stoning. If there's one innovation in Mike Rich's Hallmark-meets-King James script, it's the nod toward the opinion that Mary might have been impregnated by a centurion. But Rich suggest that it's an opinion only small-minded villagers hold, since we watch both Mary and Joseph (Oscar Isaac) get the head's up directly from God. God's messenger, the dovelike Paraclete of 1,000 years of Christian art, is here played by a bird of prey. It's appropriate, since in many parts of America, Jesus is thought to have been hatched from a hawk's egg.

Late of Whale Rider, Keisha Castle-Hughes worries her way through the lead. The facial expression she shows on the poster is exactly what you get through the entire movie: prepartum depression. Dealing with a harsh landscape, director Catherine Hardwicke tries to make the images gentler, showing us the crafts-fair activities of the Nazarenes: bundling herbs, grinding olives and pressing chèvre (blessed are the cheese makers).

Hardwicke begins with a bang with a thrifty-looking Massacre of the Innocents. What you hope for in a biblical movie is some colorful acting on the sidelines. As in all Christmas pageants, the magi are duffers, gently squabbling over the right way to proceed. Ciarán Hinds has the plum role of Herod, fussing over prophecy. But Herod never has a juicy theatrical explosion; the movie holds him to the same inoffensively realistic standards as everyone else. Alexander Siddiq, late of Syriana, reverts to his Deep Space 9 days by portraying another hologram: the half-corporeal Angel Gabriel. Gabriel seems like a role for someone more androgynous. He is a male passing on the orders of a male God—and underwhelming the audience with the appropriate verses of Luke. The definitive reading of that passage ("Behold! I bring you tidings of great joy") is not surpassed here. I'm referring to Christopher Shea, voice of the arch-nerd Linus van Pelt in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Gets even diehard atheists right in the brisket.

The point is that the legend of Mary isn't strictly for the faithful. Not everyone goes to Calvary, but every mother has her own experience with agony and solitude. The figure of Mary means intercession between the harshness of God and the waywardness of humans. And that's why Mel Gibson gave Mary such a tiny part in his hawk-God opus. Hardwicke doesn't convince you of the idea of her suffering as redemption for the Jews or even for the sad-eyed animals on their way to be sacrificed (since Jesus' death makes all further blood sacrifice moot). Rather than redeeming the Jews, the rise of Christianity doomed them to more than an eon of persecution. On perhaps a lesser scale, factory farming robs the creatures of at least of a nice perfume rub and some gilding on their horns before they face the knife.

Movie Times The Nativity Story (PG; 101 min.), directed by Catherine Hardwicke, written by Mike Rich, photographed by Elliot Davis and starring Keisha Castle-Hughes, opens Dec. 1.

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