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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


In some ways, The Nativity Story is a breath of fresh air. Considering that so many holiday movies (Deck the Halls, The Santa Clause 3, Christmas with the Kranks, Jingle All the Way) are secular and nasty, itís refreshing to see a Christmas movie thatís actually about Christ. Too bad, then, that The Nativity Story is so inert. The film had the potential to really stand out as a seasonal perennial but, while it has more than a few admirable qualities, this Biblically-based tale never really finds its momentum.

At least I donít have to spend much time describing the plot. Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) portrays Mary, who has been forced by her parents to marry the wealthy Joseph (Oscar Isaac) and told to remain pure for one year. Shortly thereafter, she is visited by a messenger from God, who informs her that she has found favor with the Lord and will soon be giving birth to His son. Mary and Joseph then head for Bethlehem while King Herod (Ciaran Hinds) seeks to learn more about the prophesy of a Messiah. You already know the part about there being not enough room at the inn and an available manger nearby. As all this is happening, three wise men follow the North Star to the location where the Messiah is born.

Hereís where it gets a little weird. Everyone knows the story of the nativity. Who among us canít tell it from memory? The movie assumes we know it, and doesnít bother to add much to the telling. This approach renders the film bland. Itís essentially going through the motions of dramatizing something that is common knowledge. That doesnít really work. Even if youíre dealing with something as familiar as the nativity story, you still have to make it 3-dimensional on screen. In other words, if youíre going to tell the story in cinematically, it needs to use the tools that are available within the medium.

I was reminded of Mel Gibsonís The Passion of the Christ, which depicted the crucifixion of Jesus as it was taught to us all in Sunday school, albeit with a lot more graphic violence. That picture let us see the event through Christís eyes. Over the course of two hours, we identified with Christ as He struggled with and eventually embraced his destiny to die so that others could be reborn. Despite what some may say, that movieís strongest impact didnít come from seeing what Jesus went through during the crucifixion; it came from feeling how he accepted it, knowing it was his reason for being on Earth. The Passion was a great example of how you can take advantage of the deep characterization that cinema allows to portray the emotions behind a Biblical event.

While all the familiar events are depicted in The Nativity Story, it shortcuts a lot of things in the characterization department, assuming that anyone who has read the Bible will be able to fill in the gaps. While that may be true, an opportunity to do something spiritually meaningful was lost. Consider Mary Ė a young woman who has been chosen to give birth to Godís flesh-and-blood son. Surely, she would have felt a combination of emotions: wonderment, pride, apprehension, possibly even nervousness. Amazingly, the Mary in this movie approaches it with general ambivalence. She doesnít really show a lot of emotion about birthing the Messiah. I wish that were different. Movies have the ability to take us deep into the minds and souls of the characters. They can show us what people are thinking and how they are feeling in the deepest recesses of their hearts. The movie should have shown us Mary going through all these disparate emotions and eventually realizing that her love for God Ė and her desire to heed His call Ė is enough to keep her going despite the various obstacles in her path. Can you imagine how moving that would be? By avoiding this approach and sticking to a straightforward, events-only take, The Nativity Story never achieves its potential.

I have to say that Iím surprised. When I heard that Catherine Hardwicke was directing, I thought she was a brilliant choice. Hardwickeís previous films, Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown were meticulous, insightful studies of adolescent angst and rebellion. It seemed logical that she would want to explore the nativity story from Maryís point of view. If any director was going to put us in Maryís sandals and make us understand what it would feel like to be chosen by God, Hardwicke would seem to be the one. Curious, then, that she avoids using her greatest strengths as a filmmaker in service of this story.

In total fairness, The Nativity Story is very pleasant, well-made, and generally enjoyable. By no means is it a bad film. It just feels slow, draggy, and rote because it never really lets us see the story through the eyes of Mary Ė and thatís exactly how we want to see it. Only in the final 20 minutes, when Jesus is born, does the movie start to spark. (Then again, youíd have to be completely incompetent to mess that up.) The faithful will certainly want to see The Nativity Story, and Iím certainly glad that I did see it. However, there is an inescapable feeling that the film could have been so much more than it is. A motion picture depicting the birth of the Savior ought to stir the soul, not just pass time during a frantic holiday season.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Nativity Story is rated PG for some violent content. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.

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