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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

The Nativity Story (2006)



Reviews and Comments

For about the first half hour, my enthusiasm for The Nativity Story evolved into concern. The movie, so I hoped, would tell the iconic story of the birth of Jesus in a way that would focus on the emotions of Mary and Joseph as they come to terms with the miraculous news given them by an angel. But when Mary receives the news with rather more stoicism than I would have imagined, I became concerned that the film was missing an opportunity.

As I soon discovered, this was not a weakness but a strength. Gradually, patiently, the film achieves a great power by its quietness -- by starting out subdued and building up from there. In retrospect, the characters seem all the more human for meeting the responsibilities God has given them with faithful resolve, rather than engaging in theatrics right out of the gate for the sake of drama.

We're used to heavyhandedness in the movies, to the point where we sometimes, as was the case with me here, expect it. Is there a more heavyhanded film, for example, than The Passion of the Christ, whose financial success opened the door to The Nativity Story being made? Not that heavyhandedness unwarranted in that case. It's about the greatest miracle in history, God incarnate in the flesh as a sacrifice for humanity, after all. But one of the most significant points of the story of the birth of Jesus is that the circumstances were so humble.

The Bible covers the story surprisingly briefly, for something so ingrained our culture, both within and without Christianity. Only two of the four gospels talk about it at all; however important Jesus' birth, moreso is what he did with his life later on. But the relative lack of biblical coverage makes the story good material for a movie adaptation, because a movie can be free to be imaginative in reading between the lines. The Nativity Story remains substantially faithful to the outline of the story given by the Bible (with some deviations in certain details), but it elaborates on the culture and realities of life at the time. The Bible, for example, says Mary and Joseph journeyed to Bethlehem and leaves it at that. But if you think about the geography and the politics of the day and the realities of travel at that time (with a pregnant woman, no less), you realize that this journey was no small thing. One of the film's strongest sequences is its portrayal of this experience -- of not just the hardships themselves, but in how Mary and Joseph weathering those hardships together cemented their relationship.

The movie takes advantage of the great opportunity to delve into the psychological aspects of the story, particularly of this relationship. Mary might have been stoned for becoming pregnant out of wedlock and must trust in God to protect her from that. Joseph, initially distraught by the discovery that Mary was pregnant, is reassured by his own visit by an angel, but his emotional journey only begins there. By claiming the child as his own, he becomes ostracized. Ultimately, Mary and Joseph have God and each other, and that's it: the culture and the land are both harsh and unforgiving. The subdued tone portrays all this so much better than a lot of theatrics could. The deep breaths and sideways glances speak so much louder.

This quiet is what sets up the end. Joseph is understandably panicked when Mary goes into labor just as they're reaching Bethlehem and there's nowhere for them to stay. This sets up some tension that ultimately releases with astonishing power -- admittedly largely because this story is so meaningful to me personally, but the film makes good on that in a way I did not expect. It understands the inherent importance of the story and that it therefore need not be manipulative to be resonant.

I strongly recommend this film. It's not laden with cynicism, as is the fashion, and it doesn't smack you upside the head like The Passion of the Christ did. But it's a great story well told, about good people trying to do the right thing, and that's pretty powerful.