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The Nativity Story

Yesterday I went to see The Nativity Story. Overall, I thought it was well done, and I'd give it about 3-1/2 out of 5 stars.

The film had a very authentic feel to it, from the costumes to the set to the background activities taking place. It "felt" like a fairly accurate portrait of Judea two millenia ago. Apparently extensive research went into making it as authentic as possible, and it paid off, really enhancing the experience of the movie. Some of the filmography was incredibly beautiful, particularly the shots of Mary and Joseph travelling by the Sea of Galilee or the Wise Men trekking through the desert.

Quite a lot of "extraneous" material was added to "pad out" the story to the proportions necessary for a feature film. The "adding" was generally tastefully done, with nothing that detracted from the story (with possibly one or two exceptions, which I'll cover later on).

The filmmakers did a good job casting actors from a variety of ethnic backgrounds who all managed to look suitably dark-haired and dark-skinned Middle Eastern. The accented English they employed was designed to mimic the effect of speaking Aramaic, and while this could have been distracting, managed to be rather effective (as compared to Mel Gibson's subtitles in The Passion).

The film really focusses on the human element of the story. We tend to dwell on the miraculous (at least I do) and pass over the fact that this happened to real people in real time with real situations and real emotions. Some things it brought home to me: the brutal Roman oppression of the Israelites; their longing for the Messiah; the relationship between Mary and Joseph; the shame they must have suffered when Mary was found to be pregnant outside of wedlock and Joseph chose to marry her anyway. The cruelty of Herod was well-portrayed and emphasized the fact that the "opposition" was trying to destroy the Son of God from his very birth.

The most touching moments of the film (for me) were the portrayal of Jesus' actual birth, and the shepherds coming to kneel before the manger. I have to confess that I cried. The fact of God entering human time and space through a teenager's body and the bloody, painful, raw experience of actual birth was astounding. He really became one of us in every way. As the shepherds knelt, I experienced a moment of awe. Their worship of someone who was nothing more than a newborn baby is astounding evidence, to me, that God revealed to them who he was.

Despite the realism, some elements seem slightly out of place. One scene in particular seemed a little forced: Mary and Joseph are fording a stream, with Mary on their donkey. As they cross, a snake swims by. The donkey spooks and Mary is swept off and barely saved by Joseph. Perhaps, a la The Passion where Jesus stomps on the head of a snake, this is meant to depict the battle between the snake and the offspring of the woman foretold in Genesis 3:15, but it seemed rather out of place.

Some bits of the film are rather anachronistic and/or a result of the "editing" necessary to make a coherent whole. For example, the wise men show up at the stable, rather than about two years later as most scholars believe. As they and their camels kneel on the right, and the shepherds and their lambs kneel on the left of the rock cave stable, the star shines down onto the baby and the camera pans out to show us the classic Nativity scene of modern portrayals. I rather wish the film had gone for a bit more authenticity at this point and challenged our cliched conceptions rather than confirming them.

Other essential elements of the story were missed out: Mary's joyful song of worship, known as the Magnificat; the multitude of angels serenading the shepherds when the birth was announced.

As for the acting, I was disappointed in the portrayal of Mary. As the film begins, she is a slightly sullen, rebellious, typically modern teenager who clashes a bit with her parents. As it progresses, she gradually and gracefully accepts her role, but I never got the impression that it was with the wholeheartedness and joy that the Bible portrays. The Mary of the Magnificat was clearly a mature, faithful, humble and robust believer who considered it the highest possible honour to be the mother of the Messiah, as any Jewish woman of her age would. The Mary of the film is accepting, but it almost seems like something that is thrust upon her and she has to learn to deal with rather than something she is fully cooperative with. Perhaps that is the effect the filmmakers were aiming for—and it certainly enhances the "human" element—but I believe that a look at the nativity story of the Bible would show us something far different.

In addition, Keisha Castle-Hughes' acting was somewhat wooden and unemotional; I never felt like I got to "know" Mary as a person. She was silent and stoic; again, perhaps that was the effect aimed for, but I was disappointed.

In contrast, the portrayal of Joseph (Oscar Isaac) was excellent. He came across as a warm, well-rounded, emotionally integrated man who fully interacted with his unusual circumstances. In addition, he was good, honest, faithful, fair, hard-working, self-sacrificing and merciful; genuinely loved Mary and was fully prepared to take her son as his own. By the end of the film, I wanted to marry him myself! Joseph definitely shone as the star of this story.

In conclusion: this film focuses our attention on an often-neglected part of Jesus' story and is a valuable and entertaining visual. Go and see it, but make sure to read Luke 1-2 when you're finished to get the original story.

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