Joseph, the human father of Jesus, or if you prefer the husband of Mary, is called the silent saint, because he speaks nary a word in the Gospel accounts of Christ’s birth–or anywhere else in them. But he’s a pretty chatty fellow in the script that Mike Rich has concocted for this retelling of the Christmas story.
That addition is only one part of a fairly liberal expansion of what is found in the Bible–particularly Matthew 1:18-2:18 and Luke 1:5-2:20. Those portions have, to be sure, been melded together fairly intelligently by Mike Rich, to provide, in the essentials, an account fundamentally (pun intended) faithful to the scriptural ones (although, it must be noted, the two evangelists do not themselves agree in every particular, and Luke’s narrative deals more with Zachariah, Elizabeth and the birth of John the Baptist than with the nativity per se). But in order to take the story to the length of even a short feature (running only a bit over a hundred minutes–which certainly doesn’t rank as a “Biblical epic”), Rich has padded things in a curiously contemporary way. He’s invented an explanation for the betrothal of Mary and Joseph, for instance, that emphasizes the cruel tax policies of the Romans and their minion Herod the Great that supposedly bankrupted Mary’s parents and compelled them to seek a suitor for their daughter. He’s elaborated Matthew’s account of Joseph’s reaction to Mary’s pregnancy, turning in into almost a soap opera crisis. He’s inserted a good deal of footage about King Herod and his political-religious machinations, in scenes that wouldn’t have been out of place in “King of Kings” or “The Greatest Story Ever Told” forty years ago. And, presumably because he felt a need to lighten things up a bit, he’s turned the Magi into a sort of comic trio, bickering and squabbling not only about undertaking their mission but along the way as well. For excitement’s sake he’s even added a scene in which Mary and Joseph are attacked by a snake during their difficult trip to Bethlehem for the census. And a pious meeting with one of the shepherds who will later visit the newborn child on their way to their destination.
These and other evidences of Rich’s massaging of the Scriptural account probably won’t bother believers overmuch–they’re not likely to be taken as insulting or sacrilegious–but they do point up the fact that among early Christians, the birth of Jesus wasn’t all that important an event; that’s why Mark and John didn’t mention it at all, and Luke treats it only very briefly. (It was Christ’s public career, and especially his death and resurrection, that were emphasized.) And in ritual the celebration of Christmas came fairly late, and was placed in the calendar at a point where the feast would deflect attention from pagan festivals.
Nowadays, of course, things are very different; Santa Claus clearly trumps the Easter Bunny in today’s culture. So there’s a built-in holiday audience for “The Nativity Story,” not as emotionally committed perhaps as the one that embraced “The Passion of the Christ” but probably larger. And one can at least be grateful that this isn’t just another contemporary Christmas movie about finding “the real meaning” of the season amidst crassness and consumerism. (It’s obviously designed to profit from the holiday mania, but that’s just a matter of business.)
Considered simply on its own, though, it’s not greatly superior to the sort of fare you’ll encounter on religious cable channels from time to time. It avoids Hallmark-greeting card slickness and Cecil D. DeMille razzmatazz, but replaces them with a plodding earnestness that leaves it largely inoffensive but rather dull. The settings don’t opt for elaborate size or color, but their period grubbiness and lack of splendor don’t make them especially attractive to look at, either. The special effects are kept to a minimum, except for the luminous appearances of the angel Gabriel (who also turns into a dove and flies off) and the manger scene at the very end, which is all to the good; but that leaves a certain visual drabness for most of the running-time.
As to the cast, they’re capable–and at least they don’t have conventionally white-bread, Jeffrey Hunter looks–but, like the rest of the picture, a little tepid. Keisha Castle-Hughes, from “The Whale Rider,” is a young Mary but a fairly impassive one. Oscar Isaac is a somewhat more vibrant, voluble Joseph, and handsome too. In the supporting cast, Ciaran Hinds is a morose, sinister Herod, Shohreh Aghdashloo a radiant Elizabeth, and Stanley Townsend a sturdy if rather emotionless Zachariah. Nadim Sawalha, Eriq Ebouaney and Stefan Kalipha work hard at being lovable as the three wise men, but don’t quite succeed.
“The Nativity Story” will be embraced by many viewers simply as an act of piety or as an excuse for a family holiday celebration. But one might have hoped for a more imaginative, challenging treatment of the material from director Catherine Hardwicke, whose considerable technique was put to better use in her previous films. As it is, she seems to have been stymied by the responsibility of making a film that will offend no one; and as a result her picture is undemanding, eager to please and, as a result, more than a little bland.