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Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Nativity Story

Just in time for Christmas The Nativity Story comes to the Essex Cinemas, a gorgeous re-telling of the birth of Christ and the story leading up to that event. Obviously, this movie was begat of the $ucce$$ of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which made more than $1 billion in theatrical and dvd sales, proving to Hollywood that there really are living and breathing Christians out there in the world, and they have money to spend on going to movies if there is something they might want to see. Suddenly, studio heads everywhere were hitting their intercoms and asking their assistants to “get a meeting with that guy who wrote the book ‘The Passion’ was based on.” They all wanted a sequel, but when it didn’t seem like that was going to pan out, New Line Cinema was bright (and quick) enough to jump on the next best idea ~ a prequel. After all, in Hollywood’s mind, if they’d come to see Him die wouldn’t they come to see Him be born?

I thought so too. I went to the first viewing at the
Essex Cinemas last weekend and expected busloads of evangelical Christians to be piling in like they did for almost every presentation of The Passion of the Christ, but, to my surprise, the theater was nearly empty. I guess watching the beginning of the story isn’t nearly as compelling to people as checking out how it ends, but it is really too bad. The Nativity Story came as a huge and satisfying surprise, and, for me, that is saying more than you can imagine.

I’ll be honest here. I didn’t want to see The Nativity Story any more than, apparently, almost everybody else in the country. I cringed at the idea of spending two hours watching yet another version of the traditional Christmas pageant we’ve all been tormented into performing since kindergarten. First, as a child you are inevitably strong-
armed into playing anything from a loitering sheep to a drop-in Wise Man and then, as an adult, once you’ve spawned a child of your own, you are required by some unspoken community standard to attend every performance of the same story from the moment your child can speak until he or she receives a high school diploma. With any luck, you can then take a breather and simply hope against hope that for at least a decade you’ll can avoid the cycle until it grabs on again and hold you until death, although now you’ll be forced to take pictures at each showing and brag loudly throughout every intermission about the achievements of your grandchild, the one playing a singing palm tree behind the shepherds in their fields. No wonder people have been reluctant to see this film voluntarily. It must almost feel like signing up for detention.

So shoot me. The shocking truth of The Nativity Story is that it’s less about the Christian mythos we’ve come to see as rote than it is about the hierarchical, civil and cultural influences which created the “script” of the Christmas pageant we all grew up learning.

My biggest regret is that I could not have attended the world premiere of The Nativity Story last month at The Vatican. Presumably, with enough liras, a studio can now even buy the services of The Pope to host a gala premiere and so the movie opened to an audience of 7,000, complete with “Entertainment Tonight”, tabloid reporters, freelance paparazzi, the Pontiff waving on cue, the whole nine yards on display to generate buzz about the film. The only thing missing was Keisha Castle-Hughes, its star. Apparently the Vatican frowned on including her because the now 16 year old would have been more than a slight embarrassment as she waddled down the red carpet in her third trimester. Yep, the teen who played Mary is now very,
very pregnant herself, and, it appears the Pope is not nearly as accepting of that condition in an unmarried teenage girl as oh, say, Joseph, for instance might have been. I guess Keisha should have mentioned a low-flying dove instead of her 20-something drummer boyfriend if she wanted respect. See, there’s a lesson in this for all of us, but I digress as usual, and now I’ll probably go to Hell for it. Oh well. As my grandmother always said, “I’m sure I’ll have plenty of company.”

Maybe most people are better Christians than me. My grandfather, Rabbi Loewenstein would certainly hope so, but the truth is, The Nativity Story does not require a Christian perspective to appreciate its story or its beauty. Director Catherine Hardwick, whose Thirteen, about today’s drug and sex-craved teens, scared the bejeezus out of suburban parents everywhere, at first seemed an odd choice to step into a solemn project like this. Instead, she turns out to be a perfect voice to illustrate how fragile a position a teenage girl like Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes; Whale Rider) had within her own world. At fifteen Mary is an unbalanced combination of child and woman. She still loves to play as a child with her friends yet she holds adult
responsibilities, working many hours each day in the fields, holding a job as an assistant to a teacher to bring in money for her family, helping her mother make and sell cheese, and still performing any number of other chores for their household. Life is not easy for anyone, but for a girl her age the future is entirely in the hands of her father. If he does not have the money to pay taxes to Herod, their King, his child can be seized like property and taken away to be put to work as a slave for the King, meaning who-knows-what. If her father decides to marry her off at a moment’s notice, he has that option as well, and, as was the everyday custom of the time that is exactly what befalls Mary one afternoon as she returns from working the field.

While this has always been a known tradition in the “Old World” I must admit it never occurred to me to consider how Joseph and Mary ever got together before. I mean, they just *were*. In every production I’d seen they were the Ward and June Cleaver of the BC set. I secretly knew that under her robe Mary was wearing pearls just like June. The idea that Joseph basically bought Mary with an ass and the promise to keep her fed and housed seems almost shocking to this viewer. There were no moonlit dinners at the Kasbah, no camel-parking late at night down at the oasis, nada, nothing. Suddenly, 15 year old Mary is thrust against her will into a marriage to a man she doesn’t know and told to like it. Her mother explains the practicality of it in terms of Joseph’s ability to provide and his basically being a nice guy. Hey! What more could a gal want? It’s not like he was a goat herder, for cryin’ out loud (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Plus (and Mom didn’t say this), this Joe is easy on the eyes.

Oscar Isaac (The Half Life of Timofey Berezin) makes an adorable Joseph. He is a furry, brown-eyed puppy dog of a saint. He is masculine, yet kind, understanding, gentle, forgiving, protective, and generally everything a nice Jewish girl could ask for in a husband. Okay, so he’s not a doctor, but you can’t have everything, even in 33 BC. At least he’s got his own place and he’s handy with tools.

The other players are equally as good, but one of the real standouts is Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo (X-Men: The Last Stand) in the small role of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, the older mother-to-be of Prophet John the
Baptist. Aghdashloo has one of the most expressive faces and distinctive voices this side of the late Anne Bancroft, and she radiates on-screen with every smile. The other is Irish actor Ciarán Hinds (Amazing Grace) as Herod. Hinds could make a career playing despots and dictators he is so good at bringing the right balance of shrewd political savvy and unhinged psychotic menace to his roles. He makes the rationale behind Herod’s decision to have every male child in the country under the age of two slaughtered seem almost like a logical solution to his dilemma. Now that is the power of persuasion. Creepy, yes, but still persuasive.

Sadly, the biggest casting snafu in the production may be with Mary herself.
As the story’s most pivotal character she carries the burden of taking the audience on the “her” journey, and yet Castle-Hughes is the most passive of the participants. True, the girl Mary would have been the one with no voice in choosing her future, but the actress’ face remains stonily frozen through most of the movie and her voiceover thoughts are mostly monotone and shallow. She definitely has the simply beauty to play the role, but she doesn’t invoke much of the fear one would expect at being visited by an angel for such a special mission and she shows no anger at being disbelieved when she insists she has broken no vow despite her obvious pregnancy.

The only other problem I had with movie is the music, which begins great enough but by the Christmas card climax in the manger degenerates into a blasting symphonic version of “Silent Night”. Why music coordinator Mychael Danna (Little Miss Sunshine) thought adding well-worn “modern” carols to the film would enhance this otherwise new take on the story is beyond me. All it does is distract and detract from the powerful narrative that has until this point seemed fresh and more believable and well-balanced than most sword and sandal adaptations. What had been an uplifting and stirring soundtrack ends in a puddle of syrupy goo.

Overall though I enjoyed the film a great deal and found it informative and thought-provoking regardless of the religious beliefs one might have. It is a story for the ages and in spite of one’s upbringing you have to marvel that the stories, traditions, and people of that time have survived as long as they have. It’s definitely worth your time to see.

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