leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh
Though Catherine Hardwicke made her directing debut with the girls-gone-wild expose THIRTEEN (2003) and might seem a controversial choice for a religious film, this retelling of the familiar tale is as solemnly predictable as a Catholic-school nativity play, and nearly as dull. It begins in a scrum of churning hoofs, as wicked King Herod (Ciaran Hinds, all but twirling his handsome moustache with evil glee), dispatches soldiers to slaughter all of tiny Bethlehem's male children under the age of 2, hoping to derail the prophecy that says the tiny town will spawn a king for all people. Flashback to one year earlier: Elderly priest Zechariah (Stanley Townsend) visits Jerusalem's Great Temple and hears a voice whispering that his equally mature wife, Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo), is pregnant with a prophet. For the sin of doubting, Zechariah is struck dumb. Meanwhile, in hardscrabble Nazareth, Elizabeth's teenage cousin Mary (15-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes), is betrothed by her impoverished parents (Hiam Abbass, Shaun Toub) to a steady, respectable local man, Joseph (Oscar Isaac). But shortly after, Mary is visited by an angel (Alexander Siddig) who says she too will bear a son, though she's never known a man. Joseph soon faces a painful dilemma: If he denounces his pregnant fiancee for adultery she'll be stoned and her family disgraced, but claiming the child will make him a liar and, unless he believes her incredible story of angels and prophecies, a fool. Simultaneously, in Persia, three scholarly kings (Nadim Sawalha, Stefan Kalipha, Eriq Ebouaney) — incongruously played as bickering fools, presumably in an attempt to inject some levity into the mix — deduce that the Messiah's birth is imminent and set out to witness the miraculous event. Screenwriter/executive producer Mike Rich approaches this material conscientiously, attempting to integrate biblical accounts of Jesus' birth, evoke day-to-day life in ancient Judea and reveal the human faces of iconic figures. The cast is generally strong (though veteran Hinds seriously overdoes the nefarious leers), leans heavily toward actors who either come from the Middle East or look as though they could have, and boasts two Oscar nominees: Castle-Hughes and Aghdashloo. The locations, in Southern Italy, Morocco and Israel's re-created "Nazareth Village," feel vividly authentic. But THE NATIVITY STORY is slow, solemn going, despite its best efforts at thundering soldiers and comic-relief kings. THE NATIVITY STORY was the first feature film to premiere at the Vatican, whose Secretary of State, one Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, praised its "respect of the mystery of the nativity" and declared it "a good cinematic event."