Vatican gives berth to ‘Nativity’

'Story' bows in Italy sans Pope

VATICAN CITY — “The Nativity Story” world preemed Sunday in the Vatican’s Paolo VI Hall, marking the first time a feature film launched from the Holy See.

Event was “a marketing dream come true,” said New Line’s worldwide distribution chief Rolf Mittweg, even though Pope Benedict XVI was not among the gala’s 7,000 attendees.

Reps for New Line and the Vatican cited the pope’s controversial upcoming trip to Turkey as the reason for his absence at the screening.

But speculation was also swirling that Benedict XVI did not attend the “Nativity” event because 16-year-old star Keisha Castle-Hughes, who plays Mary, is pregnant, in what some papers are calling a case of life imitating art.

Castle-Hughes also was absent at the Vatican preem, which helmer Catherine Hardwicke and thesps Oscar Isaac (Joseph) and Shohreh Aghdashloo (Elizabeth) came to tubthump.

The mixed crowd comprising regular Romans and also nuns, priests, bishops, cardinals and Italo politicos, filed past Swiss Guards and security devices into the auditorium. There was no red carpet.

Screening was preceded by an introduction from U.S. Archbishop John Foley, who heads the Vatican’s social communications office dedicated to spreading the faith in the media.

“We are happy to celebrate here this evening a film in which we can evoke the birth of Jesus Christ, the God-man, the savior of the world, born of the Virgin Mary,” Foley said.

“I hope my next film opens on a space station,” joked Hardwicke, whose previous films are “Thirteen” and “Lords of Dogtown.”

The $35 million-$40 million “Nativity,” which had a rapid 10-month production gestation, was largely shot in Matera, Italy, on the same location as “The Passion of the Christ” and utilized that pic’s costume designer, Maurizio Millenotti.

Mittweg said New Line is trying to tap into a similar Christian community audience base as the Mel Gibson pic, but with some differences, as “Nativity” is rated PG, while “Passion” was rated R.

“Basically, this is a much easier story; simple and sweet,” he said.

“Nativity” opens wide Friday in the U.S. on 3,000 prints and goes out on 5,000 more screens internationally within a few days after that.

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