The Nativity Story: A Review
Film studios have been wondering how they might follow up on the phenomenal but unexpected global success of The Passion of the Christ (dir. Mel Gibson, 2004), and calls for a big screen, big studio, major release prequel have so far gone unheeded. But now New Line Cinema responds by rewinding the narrative further back with a retelling of
The Nativity Story (dir. Catherine Hardwicke), released worldwide at the beginning of December.
Superficial similarities with The Passion of the Christ encourage comparison between the two films. Both were partially filmed in Matera, Italy, in homage to Pasolini's iconic
Gospel According to St Matthew (1964), and both locate themselves on the trajectory of biblical epics that attempt a sandals-and-dust authenticity alongside a faithfulness to text and tradition. But the differences between these two films are substantial, not least in target audience.
The Nativity Story is intended as viewing for the whole family, a "PG" film advertised alongside the usual holiday season froth, and although there is plenty of potential for the kind of violence that might have changed its rating, none of it is realized. The Slaughter of the Innocents, with which the film opens, is temporarily harrowing but it is short, suggestive, and non-gory. There is none of the blood that flows so freely in
The Passion. When the knife is raised to sacrifice animals in the Temple, the scene changes before it comes down. When twice we see victims of crucifixion, we do not wince. And the two birth scenes, Elizabeth's and Mary's, are short-lived, TV-style fast forwards to a delivery with no complications.
The Nativity Story is sufficiently compelling for the younger audience, especially those who know the story. For the kids, as well as for the faithful, there are enough of the familiar story markers to reassure everyone that the important bases are covered--Herod, wise men, the star, the census, shepherds, the manger--but there are enough imaginative fresh elements weaved into the traditional narrative to keep the interest up. The basis for the story is of course Matt 1-2 and Luke 1-2, and the texts are harmonized in traditional manner, with Luke just getting the edge. Zechariah and Elizabeth, from Luke, are major minor characters, and Herod and the magi, from Matthew, are ever-present. The plot centers on Luke's Nazareth to Bethlehem journey, but it is framed by the Slaughter of the Innocents from Matthew. It is the opening scene, after which the remainder of the film is presented in flashback--"One year earlier"-- and it is the penultimate scene, before the silhouettes of Mary and Joseph disappear over the horizon.
Little is omitted from Luke 1:5-2:19, but nothing is utilized from Luke 2:20-51, so there is nothing after the shepherds-- no temple, no circumcision, no Simeon and Anna. This is necessitated by the turn to Matthew after the birth, with the flight to Egypt and the Slaughter of the Innocents, stories that make it difficult to incorporate a trip to Jerusalem, towards Herod, from whom they are fleeing in Matthew. Little is omitted from Matthew's shorter account, but again it is truncated, with nothing after Matt 2:18, so we do not hear of Herod's death, of Archelaus's succession, or of the journey to Nazareth. Indeed the film effectively substitutes Antipas for Archelaus, simplifying the politics of Herod's succession in order to prefigure the difficulties for the adult Jesus, with a sinister young Antipas learning at his evil father's side. It is a simplification of both narrative and history that makes it impossible to have the holy family escape to Galilee into such a character's territory, rather than away from Archelaus's, as at the end of Matthew.
The creation of a compelling narrative on the basis of the imaginative harmonization of Matthew and Luke throws up other difficulties that The Nativity Story neatly sidesteps. There is no concession to Mary and Joseph's Bethlehem "house" in Matthew 2:11 or to the Epiphany tradition based on that. Christmas cards and advent calendars and the desire for a nativity tableau necessitate a stylish artistic arrangement of shepherds and magi, oxen and manger, and the star shining brightly on the holy family.
Influence from non-canonical gospels is negligible. Mary's parents are named Joaquim and Anna, as in Protevangelium of James , but no other use is made of this or other texts. Where the narrative departs from Matthew and Luke, Mike Rich's script relies on inference and imagination. Structurally, one of the major additions is a visit to Jerusalem en route from Nazareth to Bethlehem. But the addition of Jerusalem here makes good narrative sense. Not only is it plausible that those who travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem would go via Jerusalem (cf. a Map of First Century Palestine with Roman Road System), but it also allows the film to depict Joseph and Mary coming across Herod's path without quite meeting him, seeing the Temple and thinking about the future. Additionally, it provides the opportunity for one of the best shots of the film, as Joseph and Mary are on the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, with the city beautifully standing out in the background, with all the glories of contemporary CGI.
But the authentic look of the film is only partially generated by CGI. The locations used are pretty familiar. As well as Matera in Italy, much of the filming took place in Ouarzazate in Morocco, a favorite location for television documentaries as well as biblical and ancient world epics. One of those, the BBC documentary The Virgin Mary (dir. David McNab, 2002), may have influenced The Nativity Story at odd points. When Elizabeth gives birth to John in The Nativity Story , the scene bears an uncanny resemblance to Mary's giving birth to Jesus in The Virgin Mary, especially the use of the rope dangling from the ceiling. There may have been an echo of the dramatization of Mary's relationship with a Roman soldier from the same documentary too. There is a moment when Roman soldiers gallop through Nazareth and one of them stops and looks at Mary, who stares back. Perhaps there is nothing in it. It is just a moment, just a look, but for some viewers it may evoke that other, scandalous story that is so rarely dramatized.
The film has its fair share of historical oddities and anachronisms of the kind that biblical scholars will enjoy spotting. Zechariah sits at a rather mediaeval looking writing desk. As far as we can tell, the ancients did not use desks; the anachronism here is like depicting Robin Hood using a laptop computer. Nor is it plausible that Roman troops would have been spotted galloping through Nazareth, in 6-4 BCE, bearing a standard in order to enforce taxation, which is seen at the beginning of the film. There is a common Jesus film cliché too, as Joseph makes a disparaging comment on the commercialism of the Jerusalem temple, so prefiguring an old-fashioned reading of Jesus' so-called Temple cleansing. And the film might have tried a little harder to avoid evoking memories of
Life of Brian, as when a preacher in the market place rants on hopelessly, Python style, as Mary and Joseph walk by on their way to Jerusalem, and the man is arrested.
The film's low points, though, are the botched attempts to depict the angelic appearances to key characters. Films have always struggled with this. How can one depict an angelic appearance, a divine vision, and make it plausible? The Miracle Maker (dir. Hayes and Sokolov, 2000) used traditional animation for "supernatural" events over against its claymation for the rest, and it works. Jesus of Nazareth (dir. Zeffirelli, 1977), less successfully, has Mary responding and speaking to a window during the annunciation. But
The Nativity Story is worse. Little imagination has gone into the major angelic scenes. Mary meets Gabriel in Nazareth while going about her business outdoors, his angelic identity coded by his fuzzy-around-the edges focus. He reappears later in the film, standing on a hillside and speaking to the old shepherd, his costume white but not gleaming and the heavenly choir heard but not seen. These are unattractive scenes. One gets the feeling that Catherine Hardwicke had a loss of nerve, a failure of imagination, or both. At other points, she is more than happy to go down a traditional, iconic, picture-book route. Here, given that there is no attempt to go for an everyday human encounter, like Jesus' meeting with the devil in the desert in The Greatest Story Ever Told (dir. George Stevens, 1964), it might have been better if she had gone for the full, gleaming robed glory of an angelic epiphany. The attempt to take a middle path does not work.
On the other hand, Joseph's dream is handled very well, with the kind of imagination that one longs for in those other heavenly encounters. His dream, in which he sees people gathering to stone Mary for committing adultery, comes straight out of Jesus of Nazareth
, which has the identical motif, filmed similarly. But it improves on Zeffirelli in a couple of ways. The viewer does not immediately realize that Joseph (played by Oscar Isaac) is dreaming because we see him out at work as the people gather to stone Mary. And whereas Jesus of Nazareth has the disembodied angel's voice interrupting the action,
The Nativity Story has the angel appearing within the dream itself, emerging from the crowd to speak to Joseph. He wakes up while the angel is still speaking ("Joseph, fear not, for that which is conceived in her is of the holy spirit . . . ."). One of the reasons this works is the chance it provides for the exploration of Joseph's character, to see his inner thoughts and worries dramatized. A similar strength is the occasional insight into Mary's thinking. Mary (played by Keisha Castle-Hughes) begins the film as a fulfilled, hard-working, faithful daughter whose arranged marriage to Joseph disrupts her happy world, and the viewer is allowed to listen to her thoughts, "Why do they force me to marry a man I hardly know?" The answer to her question lies in her fate as the mother of the Messiah, whose adoptive father Joseph turns out to be the ideal husband to deal with this challenge, and so to nurture a romance between the two that is a major subplot. Mary's thoughts turn into prayers as the film progresses, as she warms herself by the fire on the way to Elizabeth's house, and later into thanks after the birth of Jesus, and finally in the closing moments of the film into the words of the Magnificat.
The Nativity Story is in many ways a predictable film, but it is no worse for that. It aims to be faithful to tradition, to tick all the relevant boxes, but it has some real charm, a lot of warmth, some imagination, and it is just about pacey enough to keep the viewer's interest. It is probably not destined to be a classic, but it is certainly not a clinker. There are moments when the film just goes through the motions, but these are compensated by many more moments when it has an interesting new angle on the old, old story. In the end, The Nativity Story makes an excellent account of itself because it does not try to be too ambitious. It knows what it is doing, presenting a warm-hearted retelling of the Nativity story without trying to reinvent the tradition. Don't expect too much, but don't be too cynical. Don't expect to be blown away, but don't prepare for disappointment.
Mark Goodacre, Duke University
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Citation: Mark Goodacre, " The Nativity Story: A Review," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Jan 2007]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=616