The Nativity Story
Reviewed by: David Criswell, Ph.D.
Better than Average
Drama, Historical, Christmas, Religion
1 hr. 32 min.
Year of Release:
December 1, 2006 (wide)
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“One Couple. One Journey. One Child… who would change the world… forever”
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The glory days of the Biblical epics seemed to have died out in the early 60s. When the quality of Biblical epics deteriorated, it became impossible to justify the large budgets they required. As a result, the past three decades have seen few Biblical sagas, and even fewer good ones. However, with the success of “The Passion of the Christ,” the Biblical epic may be experiencing a comeback. For example, “One Night with the King” featured a lustery performance and enjoyed moderate success, especially considering that it was not well-marketed by its secular distributor.
Now comes “The Nativity Story,” a Biblical saga about Joseph and Mary and the birth of the Christ, Jesus. It is not easy to take a person’s entire life and compress it into a two hour movie. This is perhaps why most movies about Jesus have failed to capture His greatness. However, with Mel Gibson's “…Passion…,” it became apparent that movies are most effective when they take a small snippet of the Lord’s life and focus the movie on that brief period, allowing the characters to become more developed and less of a cardboard cutout.
By focusing on the nativity and the events surrounding His birth, the film can spend time developing the characters and “fleshing them out.” This particular aspect, however, is something that some may object to, for it requires extra-Biblical interpretations and dramatizations. Those interpretations and dramatizations are open to criticism, and each viewer should take them into account before judging the movie. For this reason, I will begin with the possible criticisms.
Too often, liberties are taken with the stories. This was evident most recently in “One Night with the King” where Xerxes is transformed into a noble and even virtuous man who falls in love with Esther. “The Nativity…” stays more true to its source. There is very little in the movie that is un-Biblical, but much that is extra-Biblical. Perhaps the greatest issue that some viewers might raise an eyebrow at is the fact that Mary was unhappy with Joseph, at first, and even says “I don’t love” him. Although she later comes to love him, the marriage is portrayed as an unhappy, arranged marriage.
Now, while arranged marriages did take place, it is highly unlikely that Joseph and Mary’s were arranged, for such marriages were largely reserved for the wealthy upper class. Even more odd is that, in such a small village, Mary should not initially have known Joseph better. It is true that the parents usually had to give their consent for marriage, but it was not common for a poor family to arrange a marriage for their daughter to a relative stranger she did not love. Having said this, the plot gives Mary and Joseph a chance to grow together, rather than having the relationship “prefabbed.” It is done to allow the director to better show their growing love, and on that level it does work. In most every other instance, the movie stays true to its source.
On a historical level, the movie is very realistic, with only one noticeable flaw. The sets, costumes, and culture were meticulously researched to ensure their authenticity, and several times throughout the movie there is a smattering of Hebrew. The printed words are also shown in true Hebrew, showing close attention to detail. One feels as if they truly are living in Judea in antiquity, and writer Mike Rich commented that Orthodox Jews who had seen the film complimented the movie for its respect of the Jewish heritage and tradition.
However, the one glaring error, which most will probably never notice, was the curious way in which the movie connects Herod to the Romans. It is true that Herod was a puppet king, under the authority of Caesar, but the Romans were wise in how they maintained control. They allowed provinces to maintain their own soldiers and guards for the king, but ensured his loyalty with a visible Roman presence. As brutal as the Romans were, they did not seek to unnecessarily stir up the populations against them, so, whenever necessary, they would let Herod do his dirty deeds with his own soldiers. In the movie, however, it is Roman soldiers throughout the movie who act in Herod’s name and perform his wishes and deeds. Romans are even seen standing guard at the Temple entrance, which, had they violated sacred ground, would have sparked riots (indeed, the revolt of 66 A.D. began when Caligula placed a Roman standard within Temple grounds).
It is Romans shown slaughtering the children in Bethlehem, and it is implied that Herod ordered the crucifixion of various political enemies. However, crucifixion was a Roman punishment, not a Jewish one. When Jesus was tried, we remember that the Jewish courts could find no cause to convict Him. Had they, He would have been stoned to death. Only the Romans ordered crucifixions. Mike Rich admitted that part of the reason was a desire to avoid the controversy which plagued Mel Gibson's “The Passion of the Christ,” so this error is perhaps easily overlooked.
Still one other issue to address before reviewing the aesthetics of the movie is the issue of Catholicism. Many evangelicals were concerned with the overt Catholicism of Mel Gibson's Christ, and with a movie about Mary it is obvious that many Protestants and Catholics desire to see their own view of Mary in the film. If Protestants were mildly disappointed with Gibson, then Catholics may be mildly (but only mildly) disappointed with “The Nativity Story.” There is no Mary worship, and the writer himself was concerned over the depiction of Mary having birth pangs. According to Catholic dogma, Mary was without sin. Consequently, many Catholics, but not all, believe that Mary did not experience pain in childbirth, since that was a punishment given by God for sin (Genesis 3:15). However, the Bible is quite clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Mary, like all people, was a sinner. Certainly she was more pure and innocent than most of us (and, if some say “more than all of us,” I will not object), but to deny she was a sinner, and subject to birth pangs, is to call Paul (and indeed the Holy Spirit) a liar, for “all have sinned” means there are none born of man who have not sinned. The movie is, therefore, accurate to portray Mary in labor pains.
On a cinematic level, the movie is very much a triumph in the drama genre. It lacks the action that fans of the old Cecil B. DeMille epics expect, but carries with it stronger character development and is far better at evoking emotion. For the most part, the acting is top notch. One might fault Keisha for at times lacking range and depth, for when Mary is confronted with accusations of adultery she seems too passive. Might not Mary have cried or become angry? Instead she somberly replies, “I have broken no vows.” These criticisms, however, are far too harsh, for sixteen year old girls have not had the personal experiences to draw upon to give them that depth of acting. Moreover, an outward expression of anger or sorrow may not have been as convincing as the inner somber and contemplative look which she displayed. Keisha, an Academy Award nominated actress, did a fine job, as did the rest of the cast.
What the movie does best is to develop the story that is left largely untold. We know that Mary and Elizabeth knew one another, and that they shared the joy of bearing prophetic children, but we do not know the specifics of what Mary and Elizabeth went through. In the movie, that relationship is explored. We also see Mary’s faith tested, and we see Joseph when he is confronted with a pregnant wife whom he had never touched. How would we have reacted? Certainly, we would not have believed her, nor did Joseph, but Joseph’s decision not to accuse Mary (which would result in the death penalty by Mosaic Law) showed his righteousness, not his trust in her story. These are the elements that the movie dwells upon; the long journey to Bethlehem in difficult circumstances, and the faith of two meek individuals.
The movie also enhances the plots and contrivances of Herod and the journey of the Magi. In the film, Herod is depicted as a cold, calculating man. The depiction is certainly a fair judgment, although many believe that Herod was a deranged man who was apt to fly into rages at the slightest whim or offense. The film, however, shows Herod coolly and calmly discussing whether or not the slaughter of children in Bethlehem would preserve his kingdom.
Conversely, the Magi are often a source of comic relief. One Magi is “usually right,” while another is reluctantly dragged across the desert. The scenes are, nevertheless, reverent and never over the top, although I admit that the Sahara desert with its mounds of sand doesn’t look anything like the Iraqi desert with its rocks, and it was also hard at times to believe that the Magi came from Persia. These are, however, petty criticisms. The scenes really underline the journeys of faith which each person makes. The Magi, after all, did not have trains or planes. Their journey to see a child was based solely on their interpretation of Scripture and their astronomical arts, but most importantly their faith. It was a journey that would take nine months, not nine days. Such sacrifices are highlighted throughout the film, but too often forgotten by many of us.
Parents should be advised that the movie carries a PG-rating. The Slaughter of the Innocents is done without blood visible on screen, but it is obvious what is happening, and there are scenes of crucified prisoners which might be disturbing to very young children. Some might also object to a scene showing the newborn baby Jesus in the buff (bottom showing), but the movie is really very clean morally.
The filming of this type of movie is long overdue. “The Nativity…” actually holds up as one of the best Biblical epics in recent memory. It was often compared and contrasted with “The Passion of the Christ” by its producers and by the media present at the preview, and such comparisons are obvious, but its contrasts are even more apparent. The one was a violent story of Christ’s passion and His death for our sins; the other a humble story of Christ’s birth.
Oscar Isaac, who portrayed Joseph in the film, commented, “I never realized that it was such a story about humility… look at the humbleness and that kind of love.” Oscar came away saying that he wished he could be as self-sacrificing as his character. “It is not about the rich and powerful… but about the humble.” In this day and age, it is a lesson we all need to learn better.
Violence: Mild / Profanity: None / Sex/Nudity: None
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