The Nativity Story, the first film ever to be allowed to grace Vatican City with a premiere, was the epitome of Christmas-soaked excess: over-bloated, over-decorated, and over-priced. This kind of end-of-the-year gluttony (the theatrical release was 1st of December 2006) was fleeting (and constructed with visions of gilded Oscars dancing in producers heads), and almost as quickly forgotten.
Essentially, the film is comparable to a grand-scale, too-expensive holiday pageant. Like any traditional Yuletide season religious spectacle, The Nativity Story is a mostly non-offensive adaptation of an epic story, one that is geared towards a specific film-going audience: devout Christian families with money to burn. Unlike the story from which it derives, there is no “oomph”. There is no sense of danger. There is no excitement.
In this interpretation of the ancient story, the adolescent Mary (a mannequin-like Keisha Castle-Hughes, who was so contrastingly very expressive in her Oscar-nominated debut Whale Rider) is just another anonymous, free-wheelin’ young single gal trying to make enough goat cheese to get by. Also like her contemporaries, she spends a fair amount of time avoiding being kidnapped by King Herod’s (an appropriately insane Ciaran Hinds) ruthless soldiers, who go from village-to-village collecting pretty little things who, when captured, help “pay” for their parents debt by becoming slaves of the despicable ruler.
When her parents send her off to visit her pregnant relative, Elizabeth (a thoroughly wasted and barely comprehensible Shohreh Aghdashloo), it is decided for Mary that she will marry the reliable, smoldering carpenter, Joseph (Oscar Isaac). Upon her return, Mary is disappointed to learn that she will not be able to choose her own husband and actually voices this opinion (she is a romantic at heart, apparently). This feels like an inappropriately anachronistic feminist sort of maneuver on the director’s part.
There is a gargantuan problem, though: while Mary was away with visiting kin, she received a message from God saying that she was chosen to bear his child, who will become the savior of mankind (in a scene that is exceptionally lifeless). Now, Mary figures, she will have some major explaining to do, not only to her soon-to-be confused family (who will fear, upon hearing the news, she will be stoned for getting knocked up), but also to her betrothed, who takes this news with unusual understanding.
What could have been a beautiful story of a young woman’s faith and her journey into the netherworlds of religion instead turns into more of a movie of the week, soap-opera lite. As Mary’s time to give birth nears, the couple must make that remarkable cross-country trek to Bethlehem, where we all know what happens: wise men, angels, proclamations, frankincense and myrrh, etc. At the end, there’s a perfect little baby born of a pure love between God and Mary who will allegedly save the entire world from sin; and a woman who will become Christianity’s most important female figure.
Much hype was made before the movie’s release that the lackluster The Nativity Story was going to follow in the tradition of much-loved biblical epics of days past, mixing in elements of currently trendy Biblical morality tales like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. What is missing in The Nativity Story, though, is both the over-the-top pageantry and pomp of Cecil B. DeMille’s dated opuses and the blood-and-guts, brutal realities of the time that Gibson reveled in with his film. Hardwicke could have taken a cue from Martin Scorsese’s visionary 1988 passion play, The Last Temptation of Christ, which found a perfect balance between mise-en-scene and religious conviction.
The historical details are all well-reproduced (in fact, the cast received lessons on how to milk goats, make cheese, and press grapes), yet seem to lack any real meaning (though Elliot Davis’ painterly camera work comes close to being inspirational at times). This may be due to the fact that the film was rushed into and through its production: the script was written only one year in advance and the shoot was pushed hard to beat out other timely, Nativity-themed scripts at different studios.
There was a huge glitch in promotion plans for the film when Castle-Hughes, at 16, announced her own real-life unplanned pregnancy right before the film opened (likely prompting major spikes in blood pressure in every studio executive involved with handling the film). Talk about your negative publicity: the teenage actress playing the worlds most pure virgin ever was unmarried, and, apparently unapologetically pregnant.
All press junkets were immediately (and insultingly) cancelled for Hughes (who is part Maori—the indigenous people of New Zealand), and she didn’t participate in the film’s release in any way. No interviews, no explanations. Nothing came from her side at all. There were articles slandering the young woman for her choices, calling her partner of three years (the father of her child) a child molester and a monster, and others basically calling her a slut. Of course, this was mainly in the American press, which couldn’t possibly fathom that in Castle-Hughes’ culture (and a veritable host of other cultures as well) it is not uncommon for girls to begin having children at young ages.
They likened this situation absurdly to child abuse. Not a single word, of course, was said about the performers’ ahead-of-her-years maturity, her fierce commitment to her unborn child and her fiancée, or her obvious financial capability of raising a child. This sort of xenophobic, puritanical judgment by the press was simply horrifying, and Castle-Hughes unfortunately shouldered most of the blame for the film’s lackluster box office performance.
Teenage pregnancy aside, the real problem is that the film is so bland. There is no real artistic vision behind the propaganda. It is well-crafted, and decently-played, but again, for such an enduring story, the film lacks “oomph”.