Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary in The Nativity Story.
What does it say about the state of religious movies - as opposed to movies about religion - that within five minutes of leaving The Nativity Story, a studio publicist (for a studio other than the one that made Nativity Story, of course) began trash-talking the picture's Mary? She wasn't bad-mouthing the woman said to have given birth to Jesus Christ through immaculate conception - oh, no. She was bad-mouthing the actress who played her. Keisha Castle-Hughes plays the Virgin Mother.
And let's just say, this woman heard from someone who knows someone that the actress, Oscar nominated for Whale Rider, is no ... um - well, she is no Mary.
It's all the naysayers have.
Rumor and innuendo.
How else do you come at a picture so earnest and unevangelical - a picture that could at times almost be a secular retelling of a mythical adventure tale?
Actually, that instinct to talk smack about a movie as sincere as The Nativity Story probably says more about us than it does about the state of religious movies. Then again, judge not lest ye be judged, right? Perhaps snarky innuendo and rumor are an understandably defensive response to the gravy train that Mel Gibson set in motion a couple of years ago with The Passion of the Christ - so intensely pious was the reaction to that blockbuster from both admirers and detractors that lately (and ironically) the entire genre of religious film alienates far more than it unites.
What's fascinating about The Nativity Story is how it wants none of this, even if it is clearly part of that gravy train. What's on the screen is not a bit provocative - this is a virtuous, straightforward Sunday School-friendly retelling of arguably our most endearing superhero origin. The costumes could be cribbed from a Christmas pageant, the lessons are clear and simple, and the villains all look like Christopher Lee. It's cozy and not at all surprising. I'm a Catholic school survivor and this is exactly the kind of movie the nuns would show us as "a treat" the day before Christmas vacation, stodgy and stiff and formal, and as much as you didn't want to admit, mildly engrossing.
What's even more fascinating about The Nativity Story is that it asks the intriguing question of how a corny old traditional sandals-and-camels religious flick from the '50s would have played today - what would it look like without Cecil B. DeMille, and moreover, who would make it?
The answer is remarkable.
That director Catherine Hardwicke made a movie as conventional as The Nativity Story is akin to Martin Scorsese following The Last Temptation of Christ with a Lifetime movie about Lance Armstrong. A prototypical "edgy" Sundance star, her first feature was the wild-child teen drama thirteen; her even better follow-up was the exhilarating (and underrated) skateboarder epic The Lords of Dogtown. She began her career as a production designer, and that part I can see: Nativity Story is impressively attendant to detail, like the size of the cramped, muddy stable Jesus was born in, the color of the stone homes, and the way the residents of Bethlehem and Nazareth live with the livestock.
What doesn't jibe is how middle-of-the-road Hardwicke behaves. An argument could be made that she is paying homage to the Biblical epics of the studio era; the film even begins among the heavens then drifts down to Earth. But if she is, it's a misplaced reverence - a film about religion needn't be as cautious and sleepy as The Robe, or feature dialogue as lackluster as The Ten Commandments, to be taken seriously. Why do these films always remind me of Monty Python's Life of Brian - and why do I always come away thinking Python was smarter about faith?
Faith requires passion, and what The Nativity Story lacks in passion, however, it makes up for in realism. If this sounds blasphemous, I don't intend it: Hardwicke's picture takes the same tack with the story of Jesus' birth the Star Wars prequels took with Darth Vader and last year's Batman Begins took with Batman - it wants to lay out an origin with an eye for how it might have happened, piece by piece, without the weight of the legend. The Gospels don't spend much time on the story of what occurred leading up to the birth.
It was said He would be born.
And He was - that's what I remember from Catholic school.
This wonders just how scared Mary might have been - she was a quiet child who tended to her parents' fields, after all. Castle-Hughes plays her in the classic mold, stalwart and scared, but, in a new touch, not at all certain of the outcome of this. When the archangel Gabriel appears to her, there is the problem with explaining to her parents an angel told her she would be expecting a son - er, actually, mom, dad, the angel said this son would be the son of God, and yes, I have stayed a virgin.
For Catholics, it's fundamental dogma, but it's the maturity of Hardwicke's film to imagine that scenario with a sensitivity to both the mythical aspects and the place it holds in Catholicism. (Indeed, it fits into Hardwicke's teen oeuvre if you can see the story of Mary as The Greatest After School Special Ever Told.) Plus, such a dose of reality serves these characters. Joseph (a fine Oscar Isaac) never seems entirely sold on his wife's chastity but he is nevertheless deeply humane, and his faith in her evolves into a faith much larger than both of them. If Passion was obsessed with penance, this is pure compassion - a tale in which ideals and values arise from its telling.
They gather a donkey. They set out across a recognizable ancient landscape (the film was shot in Morocco and Israel). There is danger, and a touch of politics; King Herod, a crony of Caesar Augustus, orders a census of Bethlehem. Fearing the coming of a messiah who will topple his rule, Herod orders all male infants slaughtered. Comic relief is supplied by three wise men - three wise guys, really. ("If I am correct, and I usually am," they begin their prophesies.) We see the first Christmas presents placed in the hay of the manger, the iconic discovery of the manger and it all feels scrupulously precise - add the booming voice of God and it's the most elaborate lawn statuary of the season, stiff but heartfelt.