Mel, what hath thou wrought? The unprecedented success of Mad Max's The Passion of the Christ is going to bring down a plague of Bible movies, and the first major one to arrive is The Nativity Story, a rather straightforward account of the events surrounding Jesus' birth. You all know the general outline, if only from having sung 'Away in a Manger,' 'Silent Night' and 'We Three Kings' a godzillion times. And if there's anything The Nativity Story wants to avoid, it's fleshing out that general outline in such a way as to offend anybody. Whatever one might say against Gibson's biblical snuff film ' and I said more than most ' at least it was made with some passion. Watching The Nativity Story is like staring at a crèche for two straight hours.
Which may be some Christians' idea of a good time. For the rest of us, there needs to be something to sink our teeth into, but director Catherine Hardwicke, who nailed teenagers to the wall in Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, doesn't seem to know what to do with the Nazarene miss who was in danger of becoming the most celebrated unwed mother of all time. Luckily, Joseph was there to make an honest woman out of her, although he must have felt like a divine cuckold at times. Anyway, you can see how potentially juicy this material is, the Gospels having provided only the sketchiest details of what Joseph (Oscar Isaac) and Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) went through so that God's will might be done. But The Nativity Story isn't into juice. It's into solemnity, a stately procession through a story we've heard so many times before.
We open on the Slaughter of the Innocents, King Herod's attempt to nip ancient Judea's messiah complex in the bud (hence the movie's PG-13 rating). And then we wind the clock back a year, to when Mary was but a girl among girls, her whole life ahead of her. Castle-Hughes, who got an Oscar nomination for Whale Rider, does little to ingratiate herself to us. Her Mary rarely smiles, as if that would be unbefitting the future Mother of God. And when the angel Gabriel appears before her, revealing God's plans, she takes it in stride. So does the movie. To announce Gabriel's appearance, the wind picks up a little bit ' the opposite of a special effect. And Hardwicke seems to be going for a stripped-down, hold-the-CGI portrayal of this most miraculous of stories ' Baby Jesus Unplugged.
But she doesn't know how to achieve transcendence with such limited means. (She must not have seen Pier Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew.) And Mike Rich's script is virtually devoid of divine inspiration, forswearing both the poetry of the King James Version and the prose of the Revised Standard Version. If it's a gift to be simple, Rich doesn't have that gift. And the movie only briefly springs to life when the Three Wise Men, here given a slight Crosby-and-Hope makeover, are on the Road to Bethlehem. They arrive just in time to help Hardwicke stage her big Kodak Moment, all the crèche components coming together in a tableau vivant usually enacted by kids in fake beards and camel costumes.
If I sound a little blasphemous, that's because The Nativity Story is itself so pious. I like a good Bible movie as much as the next person, but this isn't a good Bible movie, it's a cop-out, a bore. With the possible exception of that other Madonna, Mary is the most influential woman of all time, beloved by countless millions of people. And the church ' the Catholic Church, in particular ' has never stopped reinterpreting her during the last two millennia. So why doesn't The Nativity Story interpret her a little bit, fill in the blanks with something we can respond to, make an argument for what role she should play in our spiritual lives? It's hardly a surprise that The Nativity Story was the first feature film chosen to have its world premiere at the Vatican. Not even an atheist could get worked up over this thing.