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THE NATIVITY STORY

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar Isaac, Sohoreh Aghdashloo, Stanley Townsend, Ciaran Hinds
Director:  Catherine Hardwicke
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1, Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  New Line Cinema
Features:  Previews, Trailers
Length:  102 Minutes
Release Date:  March 20, 2007

“Do not be afraid, Mary…you have found favor with God.”

Film ***1/2

The birth of Jesus Christ can be considered the most significant event in human history…so much so that every other event in the timeline of humanity is thought of as occurring before or after His birth.  So before the resurrection, before the crucifixion, before The Passion of the Christ, there was The Nativity Story.

This film, directed by Thirteen auteur Catherine Hardwicke, is an intimate look at this piece of history, told with detail both stylistically and emotionally.  What we are seeing, in simple terms, is the story of a simple family given an amazing charge, and how they trusted in one another and God to see it through.

It’s the story of Mary (Castle-Hughes), a simple Jewish girl living under Roman occupation and the cruel, oppressive reign of King Herod (Hinds).  Her life is filled with work and worry, as her family and everyone else around fears Herod’s dreaded tax collectors that took money, land, possessions and even children from them in his bloodthirsty quest for power.

Mary becomes betrothed to Joseph (Isaac) in a typically arranged marriage at the time.  How can she marry a man she barely knows?  But even this concern pales in comparison to the event that sets her feet onto the course of history:  when an angel of God appears to her and announces that she will give birth to the Messiah the people have been waiting for.

She accepts the calling, but how will she explain to her family and her new husband her condition when she’s supposed to be pure?  A visit to her aging cousin Elizabeth (Aghdashloo) buys her some time.  Elizabeth is pregnant as well, even in her advanced years, with the child who will become the greatest prophet of all, John the Baptist, who will pave the way for the little one Mary will give to the world.

“Blessed are you among women.  And blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

Upon returning to her family, she can no longer hide her condition.  Being with child outside of marriage was punishable by death under Jewish law, but the pained Joseph does not accuse her.  Instead, he has a dream.  The angel of the Lord appears to him as well, and verifies everything Mary has told him.

When the emperor Caesar calls for a census, every Jew must return to his homeland, leading Joseph and Mary on a treacherous hundreds-of-miles journey to Bethlehem.  Over the course of the trip, these two pivotal figures, still practically strangers to each other, learn how to find strength and faith in one another as they head toward fulfilling God’s greatest promise.

Meanwhile, in Persia, three astronomers wonder at a convergence of two stars and one planet…a rare cosmic event that at least one believes will herald the birth of the greatest of all kings.  They too set out on a journey of faith…hundreds of miles to Bethlehem, with great anticipation as to what they will find.

The birth of Jesus is beautifully visualized, with the light from the new ‘star’ pouring in through an opening in stable, telling the world that the Messiah had indeed come.  There would be much more of the story to tell, of course, but that would be for another time.

“For unto is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

I enjoyed the movie not only for its faithful retelling of an immortal piece of history, but also because it didn’t get so caught up in the grandeur of the event as to forget about the fact that Mary and Joseph were very real people, not just figures in a morality play.  The film doesn’t forget that they are a family, and suggests how they learned to become as such in the face of a great miracle. 

I’m particularly grateful for the intimate look at Joseph, one of the New Testament’s most significant yet most frequently overlooked figures.  He was no supporting player in The Nativity Story, the man who would raise the Son of God as his own, and even wonders at one point with bemusement if he will even be able to teach Jesus anything.  We see Joseph as an honorable, kind, caring figure who accepted the charge of God as much as Mary did.

Hardwicke handles the theological aspects of the movie with great taste and restraint.  One of the repeated passages from the Bible is the Old Testament reading that suggests God doesn’t appear in great fire or earthquakes, but in still, small voices, and that’s the treatment brought to the material.  Miracles don’t require spectacle if they have substance.  And these miracles do.

Some may find it all a little low-key, depending on their expectations.  But for me, it was the case of taking a major event and stripping it of pretense, and telling it in its most simplistic and intimate form.  It’s possible some may watch the movie and wonder why the birth of Jesus was such a heralded moment in time.  If so, there’s a great book available that will gladly take them the rest of the way.

Video ****

New Line continues their outstanding work with a truly glorious anamorphic transfer.  The film boasts lots of natural light, and scenes that are both bright and dim, but the DVD captures all of it with maximum clarity and detail.  I didn’t even notice softness or lack of form in the many darker images.  Highest marks.  (Full frame is also available on the disc, but trust me…you don’t want it or need it.)

Audio ****

The 5.1 audio is more lively than I expected:  there are big scenes involving soldiers and horses and crowds that really make your system come alive, with plenty of action for the rear channels and subwoofer rumblings to keep you firmly ensconced in the action.

Features *

Only a pair of trailers and some previews.

Summary:

A Catholic teacher once put it to me like this:  why do we honor Mary?  Because she said YES.  The Nativity Story is a film that honors her, Joseph, and the event that forever altered the course of mankind.  Highly recommended.

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