Bible scholars tell us that the Passion narratives in the Gospels represent the earliest stage in the development of New Testament tradition regarding the life of Christ. How Jesus suffered, died and was raised was of paramount importance in the earliest days of the church; interest in his birth and infancy came later, leading to the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke.
It is fitting, then, that the success of The Passion of the Christ should have paved the way for The Nativity Story. In the past, Jesus films have generally sought to cover the whole sweep of the gospel story, whether according to one particular Gospel (e.g., The Gospel According to Matthew; The Gospel of John) or synoptically (e.g., King of Kings; “Jesus of Nazareth”). By contrast, The Passion and The Nativity Story, like earlier forms of Christian drama, are narrower in scope — modern equivalents of, respectively, the medieval passion play and Christmas/Epiphany play (also known as “pastores et magi” or “shepherds and wise men”).
Astonishingly, The Nativity Story is essentially the first major “shepherds and wise men” feature film in Hollywood history. There’s never been any shortage of Christmas movies, of course. From It’s a Wonderful Life to A Christmas Carol, from Miracle on 34th Street to Tim Allen’s Santa Clause films, there are more Christmas movies than you could watch in all twelve days. Yet even at the height of Hollywood biblical epics, the real meaning of Christmas was essentially ignored (a few brief scenes in Ben-Hur notwithstanding).
The Nativity Story goes a long way toward redressing this historic omission. Written by Mike Rich (The Rookie, Radio) and directed by Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown), the film weaves and elaborates the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke into a character-centered tale of faith, calling, and sacrifice.
While relying on both Matthew and Luke, in one important respect the film takes its cues from the Matthean infancy narrative: Luke’s Gospel has a Marian emphasis, while Matthew focuses on Joseph. Where other retellings have almost uniformly followed Luke’s emphasis on Mary, The Nativity Story is a more Matthean exploration of Joseph’s character-arc, struggles, and heroism.
As seen here, it’s the story of a craftsman (charismatic Oscar Isaac, All About the Benjamins) whose arranged betrothal to a virtuous young woman (Keisha Castle-Hughes, Whale Rider) turns out not at all the way he expected or hoped. From the outset Mary is clearly not pleased to be marrying Joseph — and then, after a three-month hiatus to Judea to visit a kinswoman, she returns three months pregnant. The film includes the Lucan incidents of the Annunciation and visitation to Elizabeth, but it’s through Joseph’s eyes that we see Mary’s departure, her absence for three months, and her return just as she begins to show.
It’s in these scenes, fleshing out the human dimension of what the terse biblical narratives merely imply, that The Nativity Story is at its best. The tender relationship between young Mary and the older Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo, House of Sand and Fog) is touchingly drawn, and the public shame and scandal faced by Mary returning to Nazareth, and by Joseph if he stands by her, is vividly portrayed.
Even after the angelic appearance in his dream, Joseph continues to wrestle with uncertainty and doubt, notably in an affecting moment on the journey to Bethlehem involving an innocent comment from a street vendor. Orthodox journalist Terry Mattingly has observed that this depiction of Joseph’s ongoing struggles converges with a tradition in Eastern iconography depicting St. Joseph troubled by the devil even during the Nativity itself.
What is not in keeping with traditional iconography, or with the oldest tradition, is the depiction of Joseph as a comparatively young man, here in his later twenties. The Nativity Story portrays Joseph as an established craftsman living on his own, but it doesn’t follow the traditional depiction of Jesus’ foster father as a widower with children by an earlier marriage. (Though very ancient, this tradition isn’t authoritative; it is possible to envision Joseph as a young unmarried man.)
It’s fair to say that the driving religious sensibility behind The Nativity Story is more Protestant than Catholic. Even so, the film’s appeal is broadly ecumenical. If Mary’s perpetual virginity and Immaculate Conception aren’t affirmed, they aren’t contradicted either, and nothing here need be a serious obstacle for Catholic viewers. (For more on this, see “The Nativity Story and Catholic Teaching.”)
What matters more is the film’s avoidance of the kind of love-story approach to Joseph and Mary’s relationship seen in some earlier treatments. Here, on the contrary, Mary is at first averse to the arranged betrothal, only gradually coming to respect and be grateful for the man the Lord has chosen to be father to her Son. While necessarily speculative, this seems a plausible approach both psychologically and theologically.
Even in the modern cinematic age, when exacting production design in period films is almost a given, The Nativity Story recreates textures and details of first-century rural life with an earthy authenticity that is particularly rich. (Those familiar with Jesus’ saying about a “donkey’s millstone” will find out what one looks like.)
Further enhancing the realism is doubtless the most non-Caucasian cast in Hollywood Bible movie history. Perhaps English in a Bible film will never quite sound the same after The Passion's visionary use of ancient languages, but Middle-Eastern accents work better than the British or American English common in the past, and may set a new standard for such films.
Anchoring the cast above all is Isaac, whose sensitive, compelling peformance gives depth and humanity to the relatively obscure figure St. Matthew describes simply as “a righteous man.” Other assets include Aghdashloo’s warmly maternal Elizabeth, and Hiam Abbass’s prosaic Anna (i.e., St. Anne, the mother of Mary). Ciáran Hinds is darkly brooding as Herod, and Alexander Siddig is suitably otherworldly as the enigmatic Gabriel. Castle-Hughes’s Mary doesn’t emerge as vividly as Joseph or Elizabeth, though she has some strong moments.
Eschewing the standard Middle-Eastern musical textures used in Bible films from The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion, Mychael Danna’s score relies instead on traditional Christian music, including chant and early Christmas melodies, such as O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
The film’s faults, such as they are, tend to be of omission rather than commission. At the Annunciation, we have Mary’s words “Let it be done to me according to your word” — but not “I am the Lord’s handmaid.” (Alas, Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) greets Mary with the rather limp “Favored one” rather than the traditional “Full of grace.”)
Likewise at the appearance to Zechariah, Zechariah raises the issue of Elizabeth’s advanced years, but doesn’t ask the doubting question “How shall I know this?” (the counterpoint to Mary’s believing but wondering question “How shall this be?”). Nor does he receive the stern angelic reply, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of the Lord.”
These omissions are all the more curious precisely because the whole challenge with these scenes is the paucity of source material. One can understand the filmmakers’ reluctance to add dialogue to the immortal words of the Annunciation — but why not at least use all the words that are there? And why underplay Zechariah’s doubts, or the sternness of the angel’s reply? It would only make his muteness more intelligible.
Mary’s Magnificat, at one point omitted altogether, is treated only briefly and in part, in a voiceover at the end of the film. The shift itself actually makes sense — yet why omit the magnificent opening line from which the prayer takes its name (“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit exults in God my savior”)? Why include “The Lord has done great things” but omit “for me”? The edits have the effect of removing all that is specifically Marian (as well as specific references to Israel), leaving only praise of God’s works in general. This is not a good thing.
Perhaps most glaringly, while The Nativity Story depicts the Magi visiting King Herod, it omits Herod’s consultation with the scribes and the citation of the Bethlehem prophecy of Micah 5:2, which isn’t mentioned at all. Instead, Herod already has his eye on Bethlehem because of Caesar’s decree, which would send the coming Son of David back to his ancestral home. (Unfortunate as this is, it’s far better in this regard than Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth”, which not only omits the Magi’s visit to Herod altogether, but specifically makes a point of their snubbing Herod, who is seen fuming about the foreigners who have crossed his borders but refuse to come see him.)
Historical purists may object to the juxtaposition of the shepherds and the wise men (pastores et magi) on the night of Christmas, though this conflation is a well-established tradition in depicting the Nativity. The broad comic-relief use of the Magi may seem jarring to some; certainly it underscores the family-film milieu.
Despite its limitations, The Nativity Story is bound to become regular Advent and Christmas viewing for countless Catholic and Protestant families. I’m sure it will be for ours. We’ll still watch It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas, but now we’ll also have The Nativity Story, just as we have The Miracle Maker for Easter.
The Nativity Story has been a long time coming. It’s a most welcome addition now that it’s finally here.
In blogs, discussion boards, and other fora, a range of criticisms and objections concerning The Nativity Story have been raised by concerned Catholics. Some of these critiques are thoughtful and worthy of consideration, and raise issues regarding the film that have merit, or are at least defensible. Other complaints are more problematic, resting on misrepresentations of the film or even of Catholic teaching.
Perhaps The Nativity Story will take its place as the missing Christmas film — the one that actually is about the real “real meaning of Christmas.”
Although The Nativity Story doesn’t portray Joseph as a widower, it also doesn’t depict Joseph and Mary’s relationship as a typical first-century Jewish courtship. While the film doesn’t take a stance one way or the other on the Catholic doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, it finds drama in the obstacles between Joseph and Mary, rather than turning their story, as some retellings have done, into a Hollywood romance.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.