The Reeler


December 1, 2006

The Nativity Story

Original star-crossed lovers flounder in dullest version of greatest story ever told

Hollywood's approach to the Bible has historically entailed more spectacle than belief -- that is, until Mel Gibson introduced Biblical cinema to the rapture of torture porn. For Cecil B. DeMille, there was little difference between filming The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Show on Earth: One may have been about the exodus of the Jews and the other a circus pic, but both served as scaffolding for casts of thousands and epic vulgarity; belief, whether problematic or affirmative, took a back seat. The Vatican understood this: When compiling a list of recommended religious films, they paid little heed to Hollywood epics (aside from a nod to Ben-Hur), focusing instead on severe European films (Ordet, The Flowers of St. Francis) made by atheists or agnostics and grounded in the physical manifestations of faith in people rather than the miracles of God. They don't require belief to work, and so atheists can watch them empirically, believers affirmatively.

For the most part, The Nativity Story also favors the human realm over the heavenly, though it imposes its gritty severity on the well-worn story with all the doctrinal sophistication of The 700 Club. Catherine Hardwicke grounds her narrative of the birth of Jesus in the physical world of the era, with every extra showily engaged in crop seeding and/or cheese-making at all times; it's like visiting a heritage site where actors in colonial costume explain what they're doing while simultaneously trying to convey "authenticity." But The Nativity Story is also a straight-up religious yarn which leaves no room for doubt: This is the word of God, and this is how it was.

In its mealy-mouthed way, The Nativity Story seeks to humanize the familiar players. Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is a rebellious teen who enjoys giggling and flirting, Joseph (Oscar Isaac) the patient husband she's reluctantly yoked to when her family is unable to sustain itself. When Mary's mother tells her that "Joseph is a good man. A strong man," it has the opposite effect from humanizing her; as with everything else here, it transforms Biblical miracles into banal Hollywood drama, indistinguishable from a thousand other treatments of The Family in Crisis.

In short, The Nativity Story’s generic qualities makes The Passion of the Christ’s gonzo Catholicism look good. Whatever its many shortcomings, Gibson's epic had a respect for the otherness of the past that transcended slavish physical replication and became genuinely strange; Hardwicke just brings together a polyglot of heavily accented actors to speak the trite English dialogue and lets the period design do the rest of the lifting. Even so, her commitment to the past goes only so far: when Herod (Ciaran Hinds) has a bull slaughtered for his sins, Hardwicke discreetly cuts away from the blood, and the honest gore of Gibson's effort is missed. The past is only the past insofar as it can sustain a PG rating.

Hardwicke pulls out her now familiar stylistic tricks, but the shaky cam whip-pans, unnecessary zoom-ins, and tacky slo-mo that first appeared in Thirteen, her ludicrously overheated debut, seem even more wildly out of place here. Hardwicke’s attempts to capture the biblically beaten-down landscape work against her, and the result is a film as dull as its desaturated color scheme. That the recreation of the past draws attention to itself as a shoddy simulacrum isn't a crippling problem; that Hardwicke can't summon a sense of wonder for what, if you’re a believer, is the single most important birth in the history of mankind, is more troubling. Instead, we get cheap-looking, CGI-generated heavenly light beaming down on a lawn-decoration tableau of Mary and Joseph in the stable. Not all the Christmas carols in the world (bluntly integrated into the score in the hope of inducing a reflexive response) can change that.

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