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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Review: The Nativity Story

Author's note: I had originally intended to post this review around Christmas week, or at least New Year's, but due to me being busy, I was unable to do so. Thusly, I am posting this review far ahead of works that I intend to review that I had watched or read earlier. Those reviews are taking a back seat to this review due to the time of year.

The problem with Christian films, I believe, boils down to their demonstrated inability to give a Christian message without sounding preachy. Granted, they can be entertaining, and not all of them are poorly made, but aside from Fireproof, I have yet to find an overtly Christian film which meets my standards. Granted, I haven't seen October Baby yet, and God's Not Dead has yet to be released, but my case has already been made by Seven Days in Utopia and Courageous.

However, The Nativity Story is not a Christian film. Rather, it is a film about Christianity in the form of a Biblical epic. This is a very important distinction. Or rather, it's about the popular conception of Christianity.

The Nativity Story depicts the events recorded in the first few chapters of the books of Matthew and Luke, that is, the story of Jesus' birth. But this film is not about Jesus. It's about Mary, Joseph, the Magi, and *sigh* Herod. It chronicles what each of these players did in the story, and how the classic nativity scene came about. But what actually happens, you ask? For those of you too lazy to go to biblegateway.com and read the pertinent scriptures, Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is a young woman in the town of Nazareth, a small village in the land of Israel, currently subject to the Roman Empire. She lives in an unhappy time of oppression and toil, and things only get harder when an angel appears to her and informs her that she has been chosen to give birth to the Messiah. This in and of itself is a difficulty, as she has been pledged to be married to some guy named Joseph (Oscar Isaac). Meanwhile, the evilly evil King Herod the Great (CiarĂ¡n Hinds) is actively searching for the promised Messiah in order to stop this potential threat to his power (this is despite the fact that Herod was just as surprised as Mary and Joseph about the coming of the Messiah). Elsewhere, The Three Wise Men (Nadim Sawalha, Eriq Ebouaney, and Stefan Kalipha) provide comic relief while going on about these stars and how they are supposed to align for "the first time in 3,000 years." Yadda yadda yadda, I think you all get the idea.

Okay, I know what you're all thinking. By now, you think by now that I'm going to spend this review utterly roasting this movie, just like I did with Echoes of Darkness. And if you're thinking that, you're wrong. Unlike that ill-advised eBook, this film has some redeeming qualities. Are there enough to justify you getting a hold of his film and watching it? Read on, gentle reader.

Firstly, I'll give the film credit for setting the mood nicely at the beginning of the movie, obvious CGI Jerusalem notwithstanding (we'll get to that later). The haunting, Latin rendition of "O Come O Come Emmanuel" is just beautiful. Likewise, the film as a whole, if nothing else, has fantastic production design, serving greatly in bringing the story to life. Indeed, the film itself really brings the story to life, with little details such as the Nazareth children being taught stories from the Old Testament orally. Also of note is the character of Joseph. He is easily the most interesting character in the movie, with something resembling an actual arc, flaws, emotions, and a half-decent actor. He's easily the best character in this film.

However, that is where the good things end. Let's move on to the bad things, and golly, they are many bad things. Firstly, let's talk about the characters and the actors. Mary's actor, Keisha Castle-Hughes, gives a stagnate portrayal of a stagnate character. She barely reacts to anything, showing minimal outward emotion. She's just so completely devoid of life, ironic, considering whose mother the character is. In this film, Mary has plenty of driving conflict, but zero development. It's a classic example of all sizzle and no steak. By this, I mean that there's plenty of opportunity, plenty of grab (sizzle), but no maturation, no result, no steak. Rather, it's a burnt steak. Mary basically stays the same for the entire movie, and if she does change, she sure doesn't show it. She has absolutely no charisma, or even a personality. And by the way, this is the actress who was nominated for a dadblamed Academy Award!

The rest of the cast (excluding Joseph) is pretty abysmal too, both in terms of acting and characterization, being mediocre at best. The wise men? Why anyone would use the wise men as comic relief is beyond me. Besides, they were never near Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth, only one of the many Biblical inaccuracies in the film. Herod? He's completely devoid of any emotion besides malevolence, and not in a well done way at all. Jarringly enough, he's bizarrely portrayed as something of a family man, eating dinner with the wise men and the fam, even though the Bible clearly states that he summoned them secretly. I think the filmmakers wanted to make Herod a more subtle villain, but they pulled it off very wrongly (the subplot of his familial conflict with Prince Antipas isn't even worth mentioning) Besides, why would you want a terribly subtle villain in a Biblical epic? We need something more menacing. Herod, for all his beard of evilness, is not menacing. I nearly forgot to mention Zechariah (Stanley Townsend) and Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo), whose contribution to the story, while important in the Bible, is all but inconsequential here, despite taking up a huge chunk of time! It's a shame, really, because Aghdashloo is the one actor in this movie who actually does a remotely good job.

What else is there to dislike about this movie? Let me count the ways. It's filled with wholly pointless scenes, the shepherds are shoehorned in, and everything is compounded by blatant low budget measures, such as the lack of an angel army choir and using a dadblamed montage to showcase the trip to Egypt, resulting in a greatly abrupt and awkward ending. Also, for such a serious movie, the drama is pretty underwhelming, partly because we all know how the story goes and partly because the way it's played is barely competent.

One final, rather odd note, is that I came away from this movie being reminded of the hideous spectacle known as The Last Airbender, which was based off of a fantastic animated series. By that, I mean that this film had many of the same problems as The Last Airbender- bad acting, underwhelming characterizations, forced plot points, silly departures from the source material, etc. That any movie should remind me of that monstrosity is a huge red flag in and of itself. And yet... I will still always rate The Nativity Story higher than that one. Why? Because, like I said, it has at least some redeeming value, in that, visually, it gives a great rendition of the (popular conception of the) infancy narrative. Granted, it's an amateurish adaptation, but it strives for something that The Last Airbender only dreamed of: grandiosity. This film had ambition. And for that, I'll give it an "E" for effort.

RATING: 6/10

Image courtesy of leeaaron.com