THE NATIVITY STORY
Best Family Film, 2006 - 4 stars
Well Done, Intelligent Christian Film
Almost everything I heard about this film was wrong. I went expecting mediocrity, and what I got was what I would consider to be one of the finest examples of an intelligent Christian film yet. This is the first movie about the Bible that I am aware of that actually gives the story a Middle Eastern setting. Everything else ever done either caters to Catholicism, making it far too Western in look and feel; or is woefully void of any knowledge of Eastern culture whatsoever. This film makes the viewer feel he really is in the land where these events took place, and that these really are the people that made them happen.
Catherine Hardwicke (direction), Mike Rich (screenplay) and company have done their homework well. Almost every scene is an authentic and powerful picture (kudos to the art department): from Zechariah’s revelation in the Holy of Holies, to the Persian wise men in their observatory, to the plotting of the two Herods in their palace, to continual confrontations with the Roman soldiers in the streets, to Mary and Joseph passing through Jerusalem on their way to Bethlehem, to examples of the humble pastoral existence of the Nazarene peasants. Every scene seems like that must have been the way it looked.
One of my few complaints is with the cinematography. I don’t know the name of the technique, but it is a high-contrast, blue-black effect that I assume is supposed to make the film seem more documentary. In Gladiator, it helped create a dark, ominous mood for the Roman sections. Except for the scenes in Jerusalem, no such mood was required in this film. By sucking all the warm colors out of a scene, it turned potentially beautiful shots into something cold and photo journalistic. I found it hard to look at, and thought it took away from the overall beauty of the film.
Rich’s screenplay is excellent, not only for its faithfulness to the Biblical text, but for the intelligent way he filled in the gaps with meaningful dialogue that revealed the thoughts and feelings of the characters. I had never thought about how it would have appeared for Mary to return from Elizabeth’s, pregnant - either for her or Joseph. There was great shame to both of them, and this was handled well in the script. I like the way Mary and Joseph talk about what it will be like to raise such a child, and how scared they are. I also like the way the writer and director showed Joseph’s character by having him buy back the donkey for Mary’s father; how he went without food on their journey so he’d have enough for Mary and the donkey; how he protected Mary from pickpockets in Jerusalem; and how he saved her life in the river. Those are the types of details that flesh out a character and make him seem real.
The acting is no less powerful than the visuals and script. My favorite actor was Oscar Isaac (Guerrilla) as Joseph - although everyone was superb, including Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) as Mary and Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog) as Elizabeth. It’s the little things that make a performance memorable. I especially liked the fortune-teller in the Jerusalem marketplace that stopped and spoke with Mary and Joseph, and the shepherd on the hill that they stopped and spoke with. I thought Herod was sufficiently menacing. I could feel the evil in the Jerusalem Temple area, and the hypocrisy in the priests as they sacrificed the bull. There was almost no one that wasn’t 100% believable to me.
This is very intelligent filmmaking - not brilliant, but intelligent; and, except for the lack of color in the cinematography as I noted, a very enjoyable film. But it is also a powerful story, and does not drag as some have said. It is a bit on the dark side - as is life - and therefore I would not recommend it for the little kiddies. But for older kids (perhaps ten and up) and adults, it will be a memorable experience, and hopefully a tradition for many years to come.
Waitsel Smith, December 10, 2006
Text © 2006 Waitsel Smith. Image © 2006 New Line Home Video. All Rights Reserved.
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