ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, December 3, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 27

'The Nativity Story' a lifeless look at the birth of Christ
By Christy Lemire
NEW YORK (AP) - If her name weren't at the top of the credits, you'd never believe Catherine Hardwicke directed "The Nativity Story." Gone is the vibrant energy of her 2005 skateboarding adventure, "Lords of Dogtown," as is the visceral intensity of her debut film, the junior-high drama "thirteen."

Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary and Oscar Isaac as Joseph

Working from a thoroughly researched script by Mike Rich ("The Rookie," "Finding Forrester"), Hardwicke depicts the birth of Christ in such a lifeless, suffocatingly earnest manner, you'd swear she made the movie specifically to be shown in Sunday school religion classes.

It is an innovative approach, though, to portray Mary and Joseph (Keisha Castle-Hughes, the youngest person ever nominated for a best-actress Academy Award for her performance in 2002's "Whale Rider," and Oscar Issac) as a confused, newly married couple trying to comprehend the fact that they're about to become parents of the Messiah. (Guess there wasn't a "What to Expect When You're Expecting the Son of God" book for them to follow.) The gospels of Matthew and Luke address Christ's infancy, but little has been known, or shown, about mom and dad before that night in the manger. Most in the audience will walk away feeling that they've learned a thing or two.

And the scenery in Southern Italy (the same town where parts of "The Passion of the Christ" and "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" were shot) can be striking in its bright, gritty realism. Much of the action also was filmed in Morocco, including Mary and Joseph's 100-mile (160-kilometer) trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Hardwicke's history as a longtime production designer is evident in the film's attention to detail. But on a larger scale, her tone is too often didactic and just downright boring. Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ciaran Hinds, Shaun Toub and Hiam Abbas are among the eclectic international cast that's been amassed.

"Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb," Aghdashloo says in an example of the film's clunkily literal dialogue as Elizabeth, Mary's cousin. Both are surprised to learn in visits from the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) that they're pregnant: Elizabeth had seemed too old and Mary had just become Joseph's wife in an arranged marriage to a man she barely knows and doesn't love (and had made a vow of chastity for their first year together).

While the very serious Mary is hiding out for a while with her cousin, King Herod (Hinds, singularly evil and scheming) has begun his paranoid search for the Messiah, based on an Old Testament prophecy. He instructs his troops to kill anyone who might be this child, but also hopes to find him through the Roman census, which forces citizens to return to their birthplaces.

Having returned to Nazareth obviously pregnant, Mary has been ostracized by nearly everyone - except Joseph, who believes her, which makes her realize that maybe he's a good guy after all. She willingly agrees to accompany him to his hometown of Bethlehem on a donkey, across the desert, through Jerusalem, on the verge of giving birth. And of course once they arrive in town, there's no room at the inn.

Schlepping through the desert at the same time are the three Magi (Nadim Sawalha, Eriq Ebouaney and Stefan Kalipha), who ostensibly were meant to provide a touch of comic relief with their banter about the stars and planets aligning.
In their silken robes, the wise men - like everyone else in "The Nativity Story" - feel like participants in an elaborate school production, one that looks authentic but has no soul."The Nativity Story," a New Line Cinema release, runs 93 minutes. Two stars out of four.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.