As a certain failed Texas gubernatorial candidate once said, “They ain’t making Jews like Jesus anymore.” Of course, for those sage words to have any meaning in the first place, there actually had to have been a Jesus. That such a person existed around 2000 years ago is generally accepted, it’s all that stuff that may or may not have happened after he was nailed to a cross that gets so many people worked up.
“The Nativity Story,” directed by “Thirteen’s” Catherine Hardwicke and starring “Whale Rider’s” Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary, shies away from any such controversy. It goes to such lengths to avoid it, in fact, that the overall feeling is analogous to what you might experience watching the Lifetime Movie Network (if, in fact, you’re the sort of person inclined to watch the Lifetime Movie Network… I’m not pointing fingers). If “Passion of the Christ” resides at one end of the Jesus movie spectrum, “The Nativity Story” is firmly planted at the other. Where the former was a journey through Mel Gibson’s sadomasochistic rat’s nest of a mind, the latter is like one of those pastoral Massengill commercials.
[On second thought, associating the Virgin Mary with disposable douches is probably not the image we should be shooting for. Make it one of those Downy fabric softener ads.]
We meet the young Mary first, her family is barely making ends meet in the face of prohibitive taxation, and in order to protect her from indentured servitude, her father marries her off the Joseph (Oscar Isaac), a local carpenter. Mary is understandably less than enthused about the prospect, even if he seems to be a decent guy. Matters are complicated, to coin a phrase, when the archangel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) appears to the girl and tells her she’s been chosen to bear the son of God. Castle-Hughes, who was such a joy in “Whale Rider,” remains relatively stone-faced throughout the film, reacting to the news about her impending divine insemination with little more than a crinkled brow. Meanwhile, up in Masada, King Herod (Ciarán Hinds) is growing worried about an ancient prophecy foretelling the coming of a messiah.
A time zone away, in far-off Persia, the closest thing we have to comic relief comes in the form of the three wise men, who have been studying this same prophecy and it’s concurrence with an unusual astronomical anomaly. They decide to watch the skies and make the perilous journey to Judea to be “present at the creation,” as it were.
Joseph, to his credit, doesn’t lead the charge to stone his wife to death when he discovers her pregnancy, which it surprisingly forward thinking of him. However, he doesn’t have a lot of time to brood about everything going on, for Caesar has called for a census. This requires Joseph to return to Bethlehem, the city of his ancestors, and it gives Herod a chance to deal with this alleged messiah once and for all.
For an origin story about one of the most compelling and important characters in history, “The Nativity Story” is pretty damn boring. Obviously there’s not much in the way of dramatic tension to be had, because – aside from those living in pre-Iron Age settlements in South American and Papua New Guinea – everybody knows how this story ends. It’s about as suspenseful as wondering what happens at the end of “Titanic,” only that movie had more breasts. Both movies’ villains are about as one-dimensional, though (give Gibson his due, his Herod was at least a somewhat sympathetic character). The Romans are unsavory fellows (aren’t they always); they take too much in taxes and string people up in trees, but they’re easily foiled by a few branches laid across the road or Gabriel, who gives Joseph the heads-up about the Massacre of the Innocents. As for Herod, the only surprising thing about Hinds’ performance is that he doesn’t go “Moo hoo ha ha ha” while twirling his moustache.
In retrospect, it’s kind of funny that the only two movies about Jesus released in the last few years have focused on either the last torturous day of his life or the months before he was even born. No wonder He hasn’t come back yet.