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1 item from 2006

The Nativity Story

22 November 2006 | The Hollywood Reporter | See recent The Hollywood Reporter news »

Hollywood is in a born-again mode with its rediscovery that Biblical epics can bring manna at the boxoffice. In New Line Cinema's "The Nativity Story" we have the first smart, artistically and spiritually satisfying film to emerge from this trend. The familiar story, iconic aspects of which will decorate many front lawns during the next few weeks, unfolds in a scrupulously accurate historical adventure story that depicts the world of Jesus' birth with an exciting you-are-there verisimilitude.

Young Keisha Castle-Hughes (an Oscar nominee for "Whale Rider") plays not so much the Virgin Mary but a gutsy young woman born to an honorable though struggling Jewish family in Nazareth, who handles miracles and hardships with a tough-minded spirit. When a diaphanous Archangel Gabriel puts in appearances, we're clearly in the realm of mythology. But the movie, written by Mike Rich and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, sticks as close as possible to a realistic account of the Christ child's birth.

The faithful will flock to this well-told tale -- and DVD sales will be formidable -- but there is room at the inn for nonbelievers, who appreciate a good story told with cinematic flair. Because most "Christmas movies" these days are mean spirited -- i.e., "Deck the Halls" -- "Nativity" is positively refreshing.

Hardwicke has directed the teens-on-the-edge-of-disaster drama "thirteen" and the Venice skateboard film "Lords of Dogtown", neither of which prepares us for her stepping into the scandals of Cecil B. DeMille. But step she does with remarkable assuredness and sensitivity. She and Rich shake off any qualms they might have entertained about retelling a Sunday school story and go for the inherent drama of an epic about sacrifice and destiny.

At the time of Jesus' birth, the Holy Land was a fearful place, occupied by arrogant Roman soldiers under the command of King Herod, a client of Caesar Augustus. Yet the king quakes in morbid fear of the Old Testament prophecy of a Messiah, who will overthrow his rule, even to the point of ordering the slaughter of all male children, under 2 years of age, in the city of Bethlehem.

The movie retreats one year to account for this drastic action. In Nazareth, a city hounded by the king's tax collectors, economic necessity forces Anna (Hiam Abbass) and Joaquim (Shaun Toub) to tell their daughter Mary (Castle-Hughes) they have arranged her marriage to "a good man" named Joseph (Oscar Isaac). Troubled by this news, she retreats to an olive grove where the angel Gabriel Alexander Siddig) appears and tells her that the Holy Spirit will cause her to bear a son she will name Jesus, who will be mankind's savior.

Her aging cousin Elizabeth (Oscar-nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo) is experiencing a similar miracle, newly pregnant by her equally ancient husband Zechariah (Stanley Townsend), a priest. Mary convinces her parents to allow her to visit the pious couple to sort out her life. It is here she experiences the Immaculate Conception.

But returning to her hometown clearly pregnant, she puts her new husband in a moral dilemma. No one in town, not even her parents, believe her story about angels and conception. In many ways, it is Joseph who is the real hero of this story, a man who stoically accepts a role that in many eyes brands him a cuckold. Some of the movie's best passages survey his evolving spiritual awareness of this role.

Meanwhile, in Persia, three Magi -- Melchoir (Nadim Sawalha) the scholar, Gasper (Stepan Kalipha) the translator and Balthasar (Eriq Ebouaney) the confident Ethiopian astronomer -- study celestial charts and maps to discover that the signs of the Messiah's coming are unmistakable. Melchoir convinces his reluctant companions to undertake the hazardous journey through the wilderness to witness the child's entry into the world.

The film follows these story lines, paying close attention to details. This ancient world -- its flowing clothes, stone houses, scattered settlements and vast, forbidding deserts -- displays harmonious, earthen colors that delight the eye in Elliot Davis' subtle cinematography. Here we witness the close proximity of mankind with their livestock. And the spiritual awareness of a people, subjugated by foreign troops, dominates all thought and action.

The film's locations -- Matera, Italy; Morocco; and Israel -- supply amazing terrain, while production designer Stefano Maria Ortolani dresses real locations and sets that make this world come vibrantly alive. Stables are cramped, filthy places; a river crossing invites disaster; wise men weary of the journey; and treachery lurks everywhere. Mychael Danna's music is a major plus as it underscores rather than overrides the film's emotions.


New Line Cinema

A Temple Hill production

Credits: Director: Catherine Hardwicke

Screenwriter: Mike Rich

Producers: Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen

Executive producer: Toby Emmerich, Cale Boyter, Tim Van Rellim, Mike Rich, Catherine Hardwicke

Director of photography: Elliot Davis

Production designer: Stefano Maria Ortolani

Music: Mychael Danna

Costume designer: Maurizio Millenotti

Editor: Robert K. Lambert, Stuart Levy


Mary: Keisha Castle-Hughes

Joseph: Oscar Isaac

Anna: Hiam Abbass

Joaquim: Shaun Toub

Archangel Gabriel: Alexander Siddig

Melchoir: Nadim Sawalha

Balthasar: Eriq Ebouaney

Gaspar: Stefan Kalipha

King Herod: Ciaran Hinds

Elizabeth: Shohreh Aghdashloo

Running time -- 102 minutes

MPAA rating: PG


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