Many Christian children grow up reading illustrated storybooks recounting the birth of Jesus — goofy and haloed (not to mention Caucasian) cartoon characters standing in for some of the most revered figures in the Christian testament. Catherine Hardwicke’s latest movie, “The Nativity Story,” undoubtedly aspires to more than these sentimentalized picture books, but her retelling of the familiar gospel tale is asinine, uninspired and utterly devoid of creativity. And just as those kiddie books are often read during December in the spirit of Christmas festivities, “The Nativity Story” — with a score replete with stereotypical holiday favorites like “Carol of the Bells” and “Silent Night” — is a painfully obvious ploy to capitalize on the fiscal generosity that marks the holiday season.
Rife as it is with verbatim quotes from the four canonical gospels and as it fails to offer any sort of interpretation of the Biblical texts upon which it is based, the narrative of “The Nativity Story” is hardly worth mentioning. But for those unfamiliar: Mary becomes engaged to Joseph and round with child before they even know each other (biblically, that is), and the betrothed young couple flees to Bethlehem and eventually Egypt to escape infanticidal orders from Roman King Herod.
Although the plot is simple and linear, it has the potential to make for compelling human drama — a potential most certainly not recognized or capitalized on by Hardwicke. Her envisioning of the Immaculate Conception, for example, couldn’t be more insipid: The stoic Mary is visited in an olive grove by the angel Gabriel, who is predictably clad in a glowing, almost transparent white tunic. A teenage girl finds herself pregnant and unwed at a time when such cuckolding was punishable by death, and Hardwicke fails to even make that dramatic or interesting.
Given her previous directorial success at creating particularly insightful, albeit disturbing, portraits of young female angst (“Thirteen”), it is particularly disappointing that the Mary of “The Nativity Story” is so placid and two-dimensional. Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” painted Jesus’ relationship to his faith as one wrought with doubt and struggle; even Mel Gibson’s less irreverent though all the more problematic “The Passion of the Christ” seemed chiefly concerned with Christ’s humanity, emphasizing his fear and loneliness (not to mention the frailty of his entirely mortal body). Surely, then, Mary — a mere mortal, and a young, naive one at that — would have confronted her divine destiny with at least an inkling of confusion and — dare I say it about the Virgin Mother? — fear. But Hardwicke foregoes all nuance in favor of a sanitized portrait of the glowing Virgin, and even “Whale Rider” Oscar-nominee Keisha Castle-Hughes cannot redeem her character from the director’s vapid conception.
For all of the myriad problems with “The Passion” — including the fact that the same point could have been made in 10 minutes — Gibson at least made an earnest effort to recreate the Biblical world with historical accuracy. Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic and Hebrew, and the Roman soldiers spoke Latin. In “The Nativity Story,” the ambiguously ethnic cast speaks an English stilted with equally ambiguous accents. They sow corn in the fields of Nazareth at a time when maize was still cultivated only in the Americas. The three wise men, Balthasar, Gaspar and Melchior, although intended as comic relief, are mere racial stereotypes about the mysterious East.
Hardwicke’s movie feels like an animated Bible; offering no new insight into an overly familiar story, it illuminates nothing and fails to offer any sort of creative or intellectual stimulation. Here again, even the controversial “Passion” found more success: Gibson’s androgynously seductive imagining of the devil at least hinted at some sort of interpretive skill, creative vision and engagement with the text of the Bible as literature, not historical record.
But don’t mistake Hardwicke’s naive sincerity to the literal words of the Bible for religious devotion. As I understand faith, it is achieved and practiced through continual questioning, doubt and an intellectual engagement with one’s beliefs, not blind acceptance. Aside from its unsatisfactory formal elements, what is perhaps most troubling about “The Nativity Story” is that it fails to understand the Bible as sedimented with fully human politics and as a work of literature that is not only open to but often begs to be read as metaphor and symbol. In its mindless retelling of one of the most influential stories in history, “The Nativity Story” reinforces the ageless but nonetheless misguided struggle between faith and reason. And unfortunately it seems Hardwicke — to the detriment of her work — finds the two mutually exclusive.
The Nativity Story
Dir: Catherine Hardwicke
New Line Cinema