Once upon a time, the Christmas story was news. Thousands of years and almost as many plastic crèches later, the revelation seems almost old, or at least, very well rehearsed. She is remembered as perfectly strong and compliant, completely willing to accept her part in the pageant that would become a long and checkered history. She was, we understand, utterly full of wisdom and grace. Whether understood literally or metaphorically, the Biblical versions of her story, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, attest to her miraculous maturity: the girl was assigned a role that put her life at risk not only by her neighbors in Nazareth (who regularly stoned unmarried pregnant women), but also by King Herod, who feared the coming Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament.
When word of Catherine Hardwicke’s attachment to The Nativity Story first surfaced, the possibilities swirled. What if the film reimagined the about-14-year-old Mary as a recognizable teenager, like those in Hardwicke’s first features, Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown? Granted, the very category of “teenager” was unconceived in BC days, but what if Mary had a life before her calling, and what if her strength was not only created post-annunciation? What if she was shocked, or fearful, or even resentful at the prospect of bearing this child for God? What if Mary had to cope not only with her own physical and emotional concerns, but also with the judgments and suspicions of her relatives and fellows?
Predictably, the much-promoted holiday release reinforces a traditional notion of Mary (here played by Keisha Castle-Hughes) as remarkably sensible, infinitely patient, and wholly accommodating of her destiny. Still, and to its credit, it also shows the girl’s initial disquiet, as she anticipates bad reactions from family, friends, and others. Her news, she knew, wasn’t going to be embraced by folks who considered their women—daughters and wives—property. Though such concerns are almost immediately squelched in favor of celebrations of Mary’s faith and the angel Gabriel’s (Alexander Siddig) glory, for a couple of minutes, Mary looks very worried indeed.
It is moments like these that complicate The Nativity Story‘s mostly underwhelming literalism. Mary is, after all, a girl in a specific kind of trouble. The fact that the unwed, 16-year-old Castle-Hughes is in fact (and apparently unexpectedly) pregnant brings another dimension to the film’s consideration of Mary’s dilemma. While Hardwicke has called Castel-Hughes’ decision to have the child (with her 19-year-old boyfriend) “pretty brave,” the studio has been less enthusiastic, essentially dis-inviting her from The Nativity Story‘s promotional events. Better not to make a scene, you know.
Mary’s own potential “scene,” not of her making but certainly hers to deal with, was more dire. The threats inherent in her environment are established at the film’s start, when soldiers sent by Herod (a Snidely Whiplashy Ciarán Hinds) begin bursting through doors in search of male babies to slaughter (the Massacre of the Innocents). Caught up in a series of events over which she has little control, Mary faces a series of dramas and traumas, and she responds to them with a particular resilience, youthful and naïve, but also thoughtful, as you might expect of the Mother of God.
The movie too seems caught in a hard place, careening between scenes focused on Mary’s quandary and scenes that set up the visible miracle to come, in a more conventional, and sometimes jarringly antic, manner. Whenever the scene cuts to the three magi—Melchior the scholar (Nadim Sawalha), the Ethiopian astronomer Balthasar (Eriq Ebouaney), and the translator Gaspar (Stefan Kalipha)—the movie tilts toward uninspired comedic relief (Balthasar doesn’t want to go looking for the star because, he says, he’ll miss his pillows and his cushions: “I need my dates,” he complains, “my nuts”). Poorly written and awkwardly inserted, the kings-on-a-journey interludes recall SNL skits and seem designed to underline the film’s dedication to scripture, a point that hardly needs making.
For their part, Mary’s family is less than thrilled by her news. She’s introduced as Nazareth’s very good girl, helping to support her family by serving as teacher’s aide to Ruth (Farida Ouchani). She trusts in Ruth’s assertion that “God will deliver us” when word comes that the implacable taxmen are coming, again (and are notoriously willing to take poverty-stricken families’ daughters in payment). Her father Joaquim (Shaun Toub) and mother Anna (Hiam Abbass) take action on this point, arranging for her to marry Joseph (Oscar Isaac), to protect her from Herod’s bullies.
Though Mary frets in voiceover, “Why do they force me to marry a man I barely know, a man I do not love?”, a rather perfunctory romantic possibility is indicated by her and Joseph’s shy glances at one another across the town square. They do “like” each other, at least according to the town gossips and Mary’s girlfriends. And besides, he makes a gallant recovery of Joaquim’s donkey from the villainous tax collectors. The film eases up on the couple’s reported age difference (in some sources, he’s middle-aged and already has kids), and instead shows them to be more or less “made for each other.”
Be that as it may, the change in her terms—being pregnant—is bound to have an effect on the nuptials and especially, Joseph’s willingness. Neither is quite ready for the his-and-her visitations they receive from Gabriel: he instructs Joseph in a dream (“Fear not!”) and appears to Mary as she lies prettily in a sunny field. First coming as a breeze, the angel is then reduced to a less imaginative white-robed authority figure. “Nothing said by God can be impossible,” he tells her, at which point, she can only acquiesce: “Let it be done according to your word,” she says, although a next shot shows her lying awake in bed, worrying, “How is anyone to believe me?”
She’s right to worry, as her neighbors are certainly inclined to think the worst of her condition. Still, Mary’s faith in her purpose is granted additional reinforcement from her kinswoman Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who becomes pregnant around the same time—her “miracle” being the fact that she’s past childbearing age. Of the many scenes depicting miracles and wonders, the one where the two women—both pregnant, following orders, and feeling chosen—stand together during a break from their dutiful fieldwork, touching one another’s big bellies.
Quick and charming, the moment offers a respite from the movie’s push to Bethlehem. Here the women are not only vessels, but also individuals, with lives and sensibilities, and a rather lovely mutual appreciation. The film moves on quickly from this moment, but it does bring Mary’s story vibrant, however briefly.