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Author Topic: Review of The Nativity Story  (Read 2113 times) Average Rating: 0
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pensateomnia
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« on: December 01, 2006, 11:19:11 AM »

MOVIE REVIEW

Faithful
'The Nativity Story': a reverent retelling


By Ty Burr, Globe Staff  |  December 1, 2006

"The Nativity Story" is the first major Christian-themed film since "The Passion of the Christ" commercially revived the genre two years ago. It's also from the director of the 2003 lock-up-your-rampaging-daughters melodrama "Thirteen." One thus approaches this new telling of Jesus' birth with trepidation, especially given the news that its 16-year-old star has since gotten pregnant (by her boyfriend, not God). Is this the story of Mother Mary, Riot Grrrl?

Hardly. The devoted can breathe a sigh of relief and bring the kids; the curious will find a handsome, disarmingly tender visualization of the original Christmas that relies more on faith than on filmmaking inspiration. If "Passion" was the Gospel According to Mel, "The Nativity Story" is strictly by the Book.

As such, your engagement with the movie will depend on your own level of belief; at the very least, it's refreshing to see a holiday film that doesn't involve Tim Allen wearing 80 pounds of rubber padding. Earnest, stilted, rapturous, "Nativity Story" takes advantage of the new biblical realism pioneered by "Passion" -- Mary is appropriately adolescent, the setting appropriately harsh -- while keeping one foot in the cliches of the old Hollywood epics. It's "The Song of Bernadette" for the iPod generation.

As played by Keisha Castle-Hughes ("Whale Rider"), Mary of Nazareth is just one of the teenage girls and boys helping their parents dig out a hardscrabble existence in the stony landscape; more somber than most, she ducks the ardent glances of Joseph (Oscar Isaac) even after her father (Shaun Toub) betroths her to the young man.

Over in Jerusalem, King Herod (the fine Irish actor Ciarán Hinds, making with the crazy eyes and generally behaving as if he were in a Cecil B. DeMille silent) wants to nullify the prophecy of a coming Messiah for all mankind; he bides his time while his soldiers bleed the poor to pay for the king's gold-tiled waterfalls. And in far-off Persia, three wise men named Balthasar (Eriq Ebouaney), Melchior (Nadim Sawalha), and Gaspar (Stefan Kalipha) fiddle with their astrolabes and, predicting the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, saddle up their camels.

These are sideshows; the Magi come off as a sort of sandy, agreeable Manny, Moe, and Jack. "Nativity Story" focuses mostly on the drama of a young woman who has been told by the Angel Gabriel (played by Alexander Siddig when not being played by a hawk) that she's bearing the Son of God.

Castle-Hughes gives an initially passive performance that broadens and deepens as Mary acquires a sense of divine mission and a will of her own -- among other things, the movie's about a girl growing away from her small-minded community while facing her own doubts. "Why is it me God has asked? I am nothing," Mary says before coming to understand that's exactly why.

It helps that her husband's a mensch. Even before Gabriel appears to Joseph, this sensitive spouse -- Matthew's "just man" -- is inclined to trust his new wife's claims of godly impregnation. When the couple makes the 90-mile trek to Bethlehem (the Emperor Augustus's census requires Joseph to return to the village of his birth), the ordeal is shared by the two in body and spirit, the couple worrying about their unborn child like any expectant parents.

Here's where director Catherine Hardwicke does try for something new: "Nativity Story" understands that the larger miracle is that of reproduction and birth -- not just that Jesus is born, but that any child is born. Mary is the film's heroine and so are all women, including her mother, Anna (the great Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass), and her aunt Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo). In a real sense, " Nativity Story" is the female other to Gibson's "Passion": Dedicated to life rather than death, it's suffused with a sense of the womanly divine.

The filmmaking feels increasingly hemmed in, though, perhaps by a fear of giving offense to the touchy evangelical audience. "Nativity Story" rolls forward with Classics Illustrated fidelity and never strays far from the Gospels, and after a while it becomes more pageantry than cinema. (Or maybe it's just that Gabriel's summons to the shepherds of Bethlehem reminded me of Linus giving the Bible reading in "A Charlie Brown Christmas.")

Elliot Davis's cinematography is picture-postcard gorgeous; Mychael Danna's score is reasonably subtle when it's not weaving in Christmas carols. The movie's going to make a bundle because it doesn't challenge anything, and certainly the moviegoers who will be most moved by it don't want it to. They want splendidly produced orthodoxy.

Good moviemaking challenges by its very nature, of course, and that's beside the point here. By the time Mary and Joseph reach the manger -- a small cave, really -- and the Christmas star beams in through the hole above, "Nativity Story" has officially turned into a creche.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog. 
 
© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
« Last Edit: December 01, 2006, 11:19:32 AM by pensateomnia » Logged

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« Reply #1 on: December 01, 2006, 03:52:25 PM »

Chapter and Verse
Highly Faithful to Scripture, 'The Nativity Story' Lacks a Script

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 1, 2006; C01

With the blockbuster success of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," it should surprise no one that Hollywood has glommed onto Jesus in a big way. And what better biblical story to reenact than the Savior's birth, made immortal everywhere, from millions of pulpits to Linus's annual speech in "A Charlie Brown Christmas"?

"The Nativity Story" made me think of Linus, and reminded me why he makes me cry every year. Starchy where Linus is spontaneous, stagy where Linus is sincere, this drab exercise in glum piety slumps where it should soar, sapping the story of its mystery and transcendence with an overriding sense of literality. As the familiar characters take their famous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, it often looks like they're treading on eggshells, painstakingly trying to avoid offense, misinterpretation or controversy with every careful step.

To its credit, "The Nativity Story," which was written by Mike Rich and directed by Catherine Hardwicke ("Thirteen," "Lords of Dogtown"), puts the virgin birth in personal and historical context. The film reminds us that Mary -- played by Keisha Castle-Hughes -- was betrothed to Joseph (Oscar Isaac) as a result of an arranged marriage; here, she's skeptical and a bit sullen at the prospect of marrying a guy she doesn't love. Cutting away from Mary's difficult life in the desert, Hardwicke portrays the three wise men prophesying the birth of a Jewish messiah, and also the court of King Herod (Ciaran Hinds), who, when he gets wind that such a king is on the way, orders all male children of a certain age in his kingdom killed. (Fans of "Rome" will no doubt find it a bit jarring to hear Hinds, who played Caesar in the HBO series, invoke himself as Herod.)

"The Nativity Story" thus sets up the journey on which these paths will inexorably cross; indeed, with Herod's dreadful plan in motion, the story has all the makings of a groundbreaking spiritual thriller. But Hardwicke plays it safe, duly hitting all the familiar marks and trotting out all the familiar tropes, from the gauzily filmed Gabriel during the Annunciation scene to a manger that looks like it was recently confiscated from a town square in an ACLU raid.

The marvelous Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo brings earthy realism to her performance as Mary's cousin Elizabeth, whose own late-in-life pregnancy augurs the miracle to come. But Castle-Hughes, who was so vibrant in her 2002 debut "Whale Rider," is disappointing as Mary, whom she portrays in an affectless performance that seems of a piece with the monochrome olive palette of the desert backdrop. There are fleeting attempts at humor -- the three kings and their banter while following yonder star suggest the origins of the term "cracking wise" -- but for the most part "The Nativity Story" serves mostly to illustrate rather than illuminate the rote story.

There's one exception to this, and it's the focus the filmmakers put on Joseph, who enjoys a pride of place usually missing from the Mary-centric narrative. Here, Joseph is portrayed as an honorable, hardworking man, patient with his future wife's ambivalence and understanding when she presents him with the virgin birth, a circumstance most men would reject out of hand or, more likely at the time, punish with the back of it.

The most intriguing thing about "The Nativity Story" transpires during the couple's extraordinary personal journey, advancing a radical idea in an otherwise long slog of a cinematic Sunday school lesson: that Jesus became who He was not only because He was the son of God, but because He was the son of a good man.

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« Reply #2 on: December 01, 2006, 08:21:59 PM »

The last paragraph of the 2nd review makes no sense...at all... Huh She is implying that Jesus is not God when He is born, but becomes God because of his upbringing...nothing could be farther from the truth.

Also, I think for a cinematic treatment of a story we have yet to see done in fully realized film format, I'm not looking for something "outside of the box"...the story as it actually happened is moving and wonder-ful enough, it doesn't need "innovation" as the second reviewer seems to be calling for.

As for me, I haven't actually seen the movie yet, so maybe I'm not in a position to critique this reviewer's perspective. I plan on it though, probably closer to the Feast of the Nativity. Smiley

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« Reply #3 on: December 01, 2006, 09:29:38 PM »

The last paragraph reads to me, Donna, as referring to Jesus' upbringing by Joseph as the human father/step-father/head male role model as He was growing up, that St. Joseph had some influence or took an active role as a father figure instead of being a kind of vague presence.

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« Reply #4 on: December 02, 2006, 12:57:12 AM »

"that Jesus became who He was not only because He was the son of God, but because He was the son of a good man."

I guess it could be read either way...but "Jesus became who He was" -- which is God incarnate -- because he was the (step)son of St. Joseph, isn't quite right in my understanding.

I could be wrong, but by the time I got to the last paragraph of the review, I got the sense this is someone who was looking for a pot-stirrer of a film instead of a simply told account of what happened, and so I guess I was just rubbed the wrong way. I do think her statement at the end could go either way -- you are the more charitable of us for believing that is what she meant. I am not so sure...Thanks for the input though. Smiley

Donna

Addendum: Upon rereading her last comment, I can see how it can be referring only to His humanity. As I said, I was just rubbed the wrong way I guess. I'll leave it at that. Smiley
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« Reply #5 on: December 03, 2006, 05:49:16 PM »

Quote
The film reminds us that Mary -- played by Keisha Castle-Hughes -- was betrothed to Joseph (Oscar Isaac) as a result of an arranged marriage; here, she's skeptical and a bit sullen at the prospect of marrying a guy she doesn't love.

I watched the movie.  It was alright, and Joseph's role as a righteous and just man was well played out.  It's only this part we find as Orthodox as objectionable, and frankly it was expected.  The slightly "romantic" role played by both of them, and the age of Joseph himself was something that we all as either Orthodox or Catholic would find disagreeable.

I must say though, nothing comes better than Mel Gibson's the Passion, if comparing acting wise.  I mean the guy used Aramaic in the movie to make it realistic.  In this movie, I felt that a few of them spoke with Mexican accents.  Also, Mel Gibson incorporated a lot of symbolism and strong drama performance.  This was light-hearted, even when it came to the "violent" scenes, and not must symbolism, but straightforward story-telling with some extra "stuff" to make the story more interesting.

God bless.

Mina
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« Reply #6 on: December 03, 2006, 07:03:49 PM »

Quote
I must say though, nothing comes better than Mel Gibson's the Passion, if comparing acting wise.  I mean the guy used Aramaic in the movie to make it realistic.  In this movie, I felt that a few of them spoke with Mexican accents.  Also, Mel Gibson incorporated a lot of symbolism and strong drama performance.  This was light-hearted, even when it came to the "violent" scenes, and not must symbolism, but straightforward story-telling with some extra "stuff" to make the story more interesting.

You and me both! It's refreshing to see someone else here liked the Passion. I remember after it came out, there were many here bashing it for reasons that I thought were very nitpicky & bogus. I thought it was like a work of art, very well planned and thought out with excellent production value. What I also like most was the strong 'symbolism' that you speak of as the drama unfolds. It's something that most Orthodox or Catholics should catch onto while viewing the movie. I remember looking around at the people who saw the Passion at the movie theatre and could see the profound impact it had on everyone.
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« Reply #7 on: December 04, 2006, 05:28:38 AM »

I liked the passion too I was formaly Roman Catholic so I suppose I probably Have more emphasis on the passion in the back of my mind then most orthodox (for example I like the latin hymn "stabat mater" which is not very orthodox)but I thought that just as far as film making goes the Passion was just down right good ART. Though I have not yet seen The Nativity Story it sounds to me from these reviews that the makers didn't have as much "Passion"  Grin HA HA as Mel Gibson did, sounds to me like this was more or less made for $.
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« Reply #8 on: December 11, 2006, 01:30:34 AM »

"...for example I like the latin hymn "stabat mater" which is not very orthodox."

Dear Edmund,
I don't think you have anything to worry about with the Stabat mater. Compare it to the Orthodox "stravotheotokia" ("Theotokos at the Cross") hymns used on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the church year.  The exact same theology and sentiment is expressed, making these hymns some of the most moving in all Orthodox hymnography in my opinion.
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« Reply #9 on: December 11, 2006, 04:59:42 PM »

I watched the movie.  It was alright, and Joseph's role as a righteous and just man was well played out.  It's only this part we find as Orthodox as objectionable, and frankly it was expected.

Do we think Joseph was an immoral man?  Huh
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« Reply #10 on: December 11, 2006, 07:11:05 PM »

I took one of my Youth Groups (6th-8th graders) to see the movie.

The movie itself was OK---no great surprises. Good cinematography!

The biggest value of the movie was after the movie, in the chat sessions, explaining the differences between what the Church teaches and why, when compared to what the movie presents (which is entirely the West's understanding).

For example, the movie shows Panagia as living with her parents, which completely removes the need for the Presentation of the Theotokos to the Temple. Highlighting the difference between the movie and Truth helped the kids get a handle on why we celebrate such a day.
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« Reply #11 on: December 11, 2006, 08:29:26 PM »

Father,

I'm glad to hear it worked out. My first thought when I saw complaints about how the movie's portrayal didn't fit with the Protoevangelion of James was: Any discrepancy is simply a pedagogical opportunity.

Once the movie has engaged kids, then we can use even its faults as a spring-board to discuss subtleties they might not otherwise understand without a sense of the basic narrative.
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« Reply #12 on: December 13, 2006, 09:55:10 PM »

Do we think Joseph was an immoral man?  Huh

Forgive me.  I'm somewhat of a fob when it comes to writing some sentences (I might say that even some fobs write better than me  Embarrassed )

When I meant "this" I meant about the sentence I wrote afterwards:

Quote
The slightly "romantic" role played by both of them, and the age of Joseph himself was something that we all as either Orthodox or Catholic would find disagreeable.

As for his righteousness, I thought it was a well-portrayed role the actor played to convey St. Joseph's personality.

God bless.

Mina
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« Reply #13 on: December 13, 2006, 09:58:17 PM »

I took one of my Youth Groups (6th-8th graders) to see the movie.

The movie itself was OK---no great surprises. Good cinematography!

The biggest value of the movie was after the movie, in the chat sessions, explaining the differences between what the Church teaches and why, when compared to what the movie presents (which is entirely the West's understanding).

For example, the movie shows Panagia as living with her parents, which completely removes the need for the Presentation of the Theotokos to the Temple. Highlighting the difference between the movie and Truth helped the kids get a handle on why we celebrate such a day.

Same here.  I took some 9th graders out to the Sight and Sounds theaters in Lancaster, PA concerning the "Miracle of Christmas" show.  I wrote my "13 anathemas" and taught it to the kids.  It went very well, I must say.

Mina
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« Reply #14 on: December 16, 2006, 01:18:25 AM »

We were very impressed with this movie, if only for the fact that it at least stayed faithful to the details present in the biblical narratives (great idea about highlighting the differences between the film and tradition, btw).

What impressed me was how they took the astronomical phenomenon of the heavenly bodies aligning at the time of Christ's birth (which actually happened, iirc) and used the combination of the three stars shining as one (Holy Trinity, anyone??) to be the actual Star of Bethlehem.  Also...the newborn Christ, that wriggling, nursing little infant...is our Maker.  The One who holds Creation in the palm of His hand is being cradled, completely vulnerable and yet invulnerable, in the arms of His all-holy mother.

Glory be to God.
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