Sandra Hess

Memories of dreary Sunday school classes come flooding back courtesy of "The Nativity Story." Earnestly Hallmark-worthy to a fault, this stodgy addition to the cinematic religious revival gravy train offers only a bit of Year One location realism to distinguish it from films of its kind made in the '50s and early '60s.

Memories of dreary Sunday school classes come flooding back courtesy of “The Nativity Story.” Earnestly Hallmark-worthy to a fault, this stodgy addition to the cinematic religious revival gravy train offers only a bit of Year One location realism to distinguish it from films of its kind made in the ’50s and early ’60s, though at least then it might have had the advantage of a score by the likes of Miklos Rozsa, Franz Waxman or Alfred Newman. All the same, New Line should be able to sell this pic effectively to the faithful over the holiday season, and B.O. could be very strong indeed in Catholic territories such as Latin America, where devotion to the Virgin Mary runs high.

Admirers of Catherine Hardwicke will be particularly surprised that the director of “Thirteen” and “Lords of Dogtown” could make something this conventional and unspontaneous. Despite the presence of young, vital actors, the humdrum lines in Mike Rich’s script are spoken in a stilted, pan-Mediterranean/Middle Eastern accent and with a stiffness that stifles all vitality and emotion, resulting in a dry run-through of events plausibly extrapolated from the little actually known about the family of Jesus Christ.

Just two of the four gospels, Matthew and Luke, include the story of the nativity, and only the former notes the difficulty Mary’s intended husband, Joseph, and others in Nazareth may initially have had accepting the young woman’s claim of purity despite her pregnancy. Aside from this, most of the drama stems from the threat posed by King Herod (Ciaran Hinds), who is obsessed with an ancient prophecy concerning the birth of a future Jewish king.

Inspired by Matthew, screenplay foreshadows Mary’s immaculate conception with the surprise pregnancy of her cousin Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a woman past childbearing years. Unfortunately, the promise of this miracle is announced in a vast temple to Elizabeth’s husband, Jewish elder Zechariah (Stanley Townsend), in a manner that recalls nothing so much as the wizard speaking to Dorothy & Co. in Oz.

As for Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes), the serious-visaged teenager is none too thrilled to be abruptly thrown into an arranged marriage with the admiring Joseph (Oscar Isaac), who’s at least a decade older. But no sooner is Mary told to remain chaste for a year than she is visited by the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) in an olive grove and informed, “You have found favor with God.” There’s no question what this means.

Mary goes to Jerusalem for a spell to bond with Elizabeth and figure out how to explain all this to Joseph, who needs a holy visitation of his own to embrace his fate. In due course, Joseph is obliged by the coming Roman census to return to his native Bethlehem, which is so crowded that he and the ready-to-burst Mary are forced to make do in a cave artfully graced with a hole in the top to allow in celestial illumination.

This guiding light proves invaluable to the Three Wise Men, lightly comic figures who spend months making their way from Persia to Judea in order to attend the birth of the promised messiah.

Hardwicke’s background as a production designer asserts itself in the vivid, if fleeting, depiction of quotidian life in Nazareth, the maze of one-story stone huts that comprises Bethlehem and the imposing temple of Jerusalem.

Otherwise, however, she evinces no feeling for antiquity, the epic format or the dramatic presentation of epochal events. In addition to the mundane realism, pic sorely needs some visual heightening to exalt its images and characters, to suggest a spiritual dimension.

Instead, the film’s banal sensibility is suggested by its dependence upon “startling” transitions, such as cutting away pointlessly to exotic animals or loud sounds, and upon the recurring motif of heavy drum beats to signal the arrival of Roman soldiers.

Castle-Hughes, so effective in “Whale Rider,” spends nearly the entire film furrowing her brow to express a mixture of anxiety and determination. Isaac seems ready and eager to combust at any moment but never gets the chance, while Hinds, all uptight paranoia as the Judean monarch, no doubt becomes the first actor to portray both Herod and Julius Caesar in as many seasons.

Visuals have been drained of vibrant colors, which may serve to accommodate the extensive CGI backgrounds but dulls the overall look. Locations are very good; Matera, the ancient southern Italian town used in “The Passion of the Christ,” again fills in evocatively as Jerusalem and environs, while Ouarzazate and other Moroccan locales provide diverse topography for the major treks involved.

The Nativity Story

Production

A New Line Cinema release of a Temple Hill production. Produced by Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen. Executive producers, Toby Emmerich, Cale Boyter, Tim Van Rellim, Mike Rich, Catherine Hardwicke. Co-executive producers, Judd Funk, Michael Disco. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Screenplay, Mike Rich.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Deluxe prints; widescreen), Elliot Davis; editors, Robert K. Lambert, Stuart Levy; music, Mychael Danna; production designer, Stefano Maria Ortolani; supervising art directors, Giacomo Calo Carducci, Marco Trentini (Morocco); art directors, Maria Teresa Barbasso, Antonio Tarolla; set decorator, Alessandra Querzola; costume designer, Maurizio Millenotti; sound (SDDS/Dolby Digital/DTS), Ian Voigt; sound designer-supervising sound editor, Frank Gaeta; re-recording mixers, Gary Bourgeois, Beau Borders, Rick Kline; visual effects supervisors, James E. Price, Theresa Ellis Rygiel; visual effects, Hammerhead Prods., Digital Domain, Digital Dream, Frantic Films; assistant director, Justin Muller; second unit director-camera, Harvey Harrison; casting, Mindy Marin, Priscilla John. Reviewed at Clarity screening room, Beverly Hills, Nov. 20, 2006. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Mary - Keisha Castle-Hughes Joseph - Oscar Isaac Anna - Hiam Abbass Joaquim - Shaun Toub Herod - Ciaran Hinds Elizabeth - Shohreh Aghdashloo Zechariah - Stanley Townsend The Angel Gabriel - Alexander Siddig Melchior - Nadim Sawalha Balthasar - Eriq Ebouaney Gaspar - Stefan Kalipha Antipas - Alessandro Giuggioli Ruth - Farida Ouchani Tero - Said Amadis
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