November 30, 2006

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The Nativity Story (PG)
An edge-of-poverty teenage girl finds herself "in trouble" and facing the serious disapproval of her family, possible abandonment by her fiance and potential execution via "stoning" by her village, not to mention the likelihood that she's carrying a child whose existence could cause all sorts of political turmoil in her already turmoil-filled corner of the world, in The Nativity Story, a movie directed by Catherine Hardwicke, director of Lords of Dogtown and writer/director of Thirteen.

Though if you're looking for edgy story development and teenage viewpoints in this personal and political melodrama, which is also known as "Christmas," you'll want to move along. Hardwicke tackles the story of how Jesus went from being a twinkle in God's eye to the Word Made Flesh with roughly the same story development and tone of your average church pageant. She benefits from not having the Angel Gabriel played by a bossy 10-year-old (he is instead, here, played Alexander Siddig, formerly the wussy Dr. Julian Bashir on Deep Space Nine) or her wise men played by nose-picking third graders (they instead have vaguely Middle-East-y ethnic accents, a Yiddish-grandpas-on-a-road-trip chemistry and Rosencrantz-and-Gildenstern-ish dialogue). And the costumes totally beat the halo-held-up-by-pipe-cleaner and poster-board-wings get-up your mom made for you. And the scenery? Goats and hard-scrabble dirt farms — beat that with fold-up cardboard farm animals.

But beyond that, you've got a pretty standard tale of Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes, who got an Oscar nod for The Whale Rider), ambivalent about an arranged marriage to older dude Joseph (Oscar Isaac) and bummed that Nazareth doesn't have a lot of other options for a teenage girl of marrying age who doesn't want to end up a slave to pay off her family's debt. Also, this being Roman-occupied Judea, life in general isn't going to offer a lot of options to someone who is poor and Jewish and a girl.

Then, bam, pregnant. Scared, she visits her cousin Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who is having a late-in-life (which was what, then, 23?) pregnancy thanks to a God-assisted burst of fertility. When she safely gives birth to little John the Baptist, Mary decides to head home and tell the family to start knitting booties.

Naturally, neither her parents nor Joseph are happy about the bun in the oven, even if she claims it a holy bun. Virgin conception, sure, her dad says, but really, was it one of those schmucky Roman soldiers, who ride though town like they own the joint? Mary insists that she's pure and, after having a dream-visit from Gabriel, Joseph believes her.

Their happy-family plans hit a road bump when Herod (Ciaran Hinds), a paranoid ruler, decides to make every male return to his place of origin for the Roman census in hopes of ferreting out the much-discussed coming messiah. (This actually proves to be one of his more subtle plans; his plan B is kill everybody of the messiah's approximate age and gender.) So off go Joseph and a very pregnant Mary, nary a birthing center or a mid-wife in sight, to Bethlehem. When Mary says "it's time," only a the roughest interpretation of the word "stable" is available.

Aghdashloo gives an excellent as always performance for what is a rather peripheral character to the story as the movie tells it. Her presence serves mostly to make up for the rather limp job Castle-Hughes does as Mary. (Though, I suppose it is not inaccurate for a teenage girl to spend most of her time staring into middle distance, looking bored and slightly annoyed.)

The real hero of this version of events is Joseph. We see him perform acts of kindness to Mary and her family despite her nonexcitement about their engagement. Once he's faced with the keep-her-or-dump-her dilemma after her pregnancy, Joseph continues to act in menschy ways, deciding to protect Mary even before he really buys in to the child-of-God theory. "What can I teach such a child," Joseph says, a common new-parent thought even if your child isn't a little deity. In a way that we never really see Mary's inner life, we get to see Joseph's angst at being dad to a kid who isn't biologically his own and how decency and an intrinsic sense of kindness and compassion (even more than Gabriel's visit) leads him to always do right by Mary, even to his own detriment.

For a movie not much better than your average History Channel recreation of ancient times, this glimpse at a heretofore relatively ignored character brings some real drama into the story. Sure we know how it all turns out — crucifixion, Constantine, crusades, Santa — but in the middle of a conventional story that even weaves Christmas carols into its score we get a fresh note, a brief look at something different, a little bit of "huh, interesting."

It's a Christmas-movie miracle. B-

Rated PG for some violent content. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke and written by Mark Rich (with a little help from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — not that their agents bothered to get them any screen credit), The Nativity Story is about an hour and 40 minutes long and will be distributed by New Line Cinema. It opens wide Dec. 1.

— Amy Diaz