The Nativity Story (Catherine Hardwicke, 2006)
Catherine Hardwicke's The Nativity Story is simply that --- a story. There are no complex allusions to modern concerns, political innuendos, or deep philosophical musings. It's quite straightforward; there's nothing new you'll learn here that you already knew from before. The Nativity Story's simplicity is probably its biggest strength. You can't possibly accuse it of anything the same way other religious films have been accused (The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, 2004) with its anti-Semitism and pornographic violence, The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988) with its revisionist theology, The Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979) with its irreverent stance on the life of an alternate universe-Christ). It takes the course Pasolini went with his Christ film The Gospel According to Matthew (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1973): as straightforward as possible, with a close watch on historical, archaeological and anthropological detailry. It should've work, but it didn't. The Nativity Story, unlike all the mentioned Christ films (even Mel Gibson's) is plain, boring, and dull.
With Hardwicke helming the feature, I expected something more cutting edge or at least emotionally gripping. Her work with Thirteen (2003) is flawed but the teenage angst and the maternal remove is palpable and felt. I haven't seen her Lord of Dogtown (2005) but I'm sure it treads the same way: teenage angst and concerns. Mary (Keish Castle-Hughes) is portrayed as a regular teenager. Actually, it's during that time that Hardwicke feels most comfortable: local boys exchange faraway glances of approval with the town's maidens. When Mary is forcedly engaged to carpenter Joseph (Oscar Isaac), Mary is suddenly strangled with a responsibility of a hastened adulthood. All of a sudden, she is removed from a culture that she is comfortable with. Playtime has been reduced by added chores in recognition of the fact that she is engaged. Sadly, it is also during that time that Hardwicke is removed from her area of comfort. The film suddenly becomes generic and ponderous --- a mere string of recreations done so many times (and with fraction of this film's budget) in Christmas television specials.
Hardwicke directs responsibly. Before directing, she previously worked as a production designer, and it shows. There's an attempt to immerse the audience with the culture and the hardships of ancient Israel. Cheese is made from goat's milk (the film features both the cheese making and the milk harvesting process). The rural areas of Israel are recreated with impressive detailedness. The cities are crowded with pickpockets and merchants bartering several items. There's always something happening in the background and that kind of meticulousness is truly impressive. The problem is that the background seems more interesting than what happens in the foreground. Mary looking submissive and innocent, Joseph struggling with his family's dilemmas, all those uninspiring character details fail to move me; it forces me to just watch the extras in their recreated day-to-day ancient Hebrew life (I already know the story anyway).
It's not Hardwicke's problem --- she does what she can with what's given her (she actually made Mary's youth akin to her previous features). It's the problem of the script, which I thought was tepid, unexciting, and at times felt incomplete. It's also the problem of Keisha Castle-Hughes who doesn't have the personality or the star power to be more than just an actress playing Mary (differentiated from character-altering portrayals like Willem Dafoe's Jesus in Scorsese's Christ pic). Her Mary is submissive (let me change that: Her Mary is sorely inactive). It puts questions upon the burden that is divinely put upon her shoulders. We are already aware of her saintly status; however, a believable human side to Mary could've made the feature a bit more adventurous, and her struggle a lot more realistically placed. Isaac's Joseph fares a bit better but sadly, does not transcend the sanctification that has been provided the character. A bit of humanity stutters the consistent woodenness of the film's primary couple when Joseph surprisingly flares a bit with the knowledge of Mary's pregnancy. Unfortunately, it's all boring goodness and saintliness that follow thereafter.
Hardwicke has prepared us for ancient Israel that is shadowed by years and years of oppression; the citizens of that tortured nation should have garnered a bit more gusto and activity (no matter what religious state they are in). The experience of watching The Nativity Story is comparable to the experience of watching fishes in an aquarium. You watch the fishes swim by amidst a backdrop of fake seaweeds and a little polyester castle. The two experiences are both pleasant, but not life-altering; it's something you file away in your mnemonic cabinet and somehow forget. It's all good but with all the many versions of this tale already made, I expected something better than just pleasant.