Have you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head?

Review of “The Nativity Story”

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The birth of Christ is the stuff from which legends are forged. The story itself is inexplicable. Yet, after 2000 years, it’s been reduced to a series of clichés, and immortalized in a handful of simple carols that find a voice roughly four weeks out of every year. We read the narrative from the Gospel of Luke. We know the words. We can recite them by heart. Old wine.

Last Tuesday night, the people for whom I work treated me and some 300 others to a preview screening of The Nativity Story, which will premiere December 1, and I got to drink some new wine. Just a taste, mind you—the cut we saw was still rough, scored with a temp track and pieced together with unfinished visual effects. But the fragrance still lingers.

The film tracks roughly three plots—Herod’s obsession with the ancient prophecy of a ruler destined to displace him; three wise men from a far eastern country following the movement of three stars that herald the fulfillment of the prophecy; and the journey of Mary and Joseph, her pregnancy, and the subsequent trek across the desert from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

The familiar story hits every beat from the play the children put on at Christmas time. This iteration, however, breathes verisimilitude back into the tale, allowing us to experience it for the first time. The filmmakers have approached this film with great care, crafting the characters with honesty, integrity, and more importantly, humanness. For instance, Hebrew law in those days commanded that an unwed mother be put to death, a detail many overlook, but something the film approaches head on.

Therefore Joseph, portrayed in the film by Oscar Isaac, emerges as the most rounded character of the ensemble. He encapsulates the despair of learning about his wife’s pregnancy, confronting the very real threat of her death. He believes her wild story of conception only after enduring a nightmare, followed by the intervention of the angel Gabriel—a scene very reminiscent of Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth.

Among other notable moments is a short exchange between Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem. She wonders how they will raise such a child, when he will know who he is. “Will it be a look in his eyes?” she asks. “Something he says?”

“I wonder if I will even be able to teach him anything,” Joseph muses.

Above all, this film simply tells its story, free of the self-righteous exploitation of so many earlier efforts from the Christian community’s ventures into the movies. It recalls, albeit on a much smaller scale, the biblical epics of the 1940s and 50s. The film does tend to fall into cliché, but only on a handful of points. The character of Herod feels more like a caricature of the actual man, though his tyranny is unquestionable (I always imagined him as a kind of Edward the Longshanks from Braveheart). There will always be things over which to quibble, especially when it comes to this material. While there may be some areas that could stand some improvement, I believe the filmmakers could have done much worse. They have delivered a solid piece that will at least earn a quiet satisfaction from even the harshest critics.

Perhaps the schism between Christianity and the arts will see some mending once people have had a chance to view this film. The Passion of the Christ showed Hollywood that Jesus was still marketable. I hope this film will take the effort one step further.


Written by taj

October 26, 2006 at 12:10 pm

Posted in Movies, stories

One Response

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  1. […] Speaking of Travis, he’s written a piece on The Nativity Story too. […]

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