Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Greatest Sedative Ever Told

The Nativity Story
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke
Starring: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar Isaac, Shohreh Aghdashloo
Grade: F

Firstly, I am not a Christian. You may wonder why I chose to see this movie. I actually spent a good ten minutes yesterday contemplating this decision. The answer is simple: boredom. And yet infuriatingly, The Nativity Story, a conventional re-telling of the "greatest story ever told" instigates very little beyond boredom.

Catherine Hardwicke, whose competent debut feature, Thirteen, was sharp and authentic, both aesthetically and emotionally, stumbles with this film, never really seeming to make a decision as to whether she wants to take a traditional, emotive approach, or opt for a more life-like, historically factual version. The result, as it happens, is neither.
Hardwicke's direction carries with it all the markings of false assurance, making the film seem full of self-importance. You can see the strain to make the film meaningful; the grand, epic ambitions of a flailing, underwhelming production. As much as she dresses up the display with rich costumes, archaic props, picturesque shots of beautiful middle-Eastern landscape, the story is essentially too familiar to put any kind of original stamp on, and subsequently there's an evident absence of drive.

The problem is that aside from the acting (which is good on the whole) and the trumped up production design, there really isn't anything to differentiate it from your local village hall production. I mean, how much can you alter the line, "Is there any room at the inn?"? The Nativity Story offers as much clarity as any other version of this tale you will see, and pales comparatively with regard to emotional output. There's definitely something up when the supposed "greatest story ever told" isn't grand, isn't inspirational, isn't heart-warming, and doesn't stir you from scoffing maltesers (as delicious as they are). Of all the stories ever told, this is the one that ultimately relies solely on the significance of its message, and for this to be expressed in the last five minutes so morosely through an awestruck clan and prolonged deafening score typifies the emotional ineptness of the film throughout.

The thing that has always struck me about The Nativity Story is how simple it reads. Its deployment of characters in an archetypal sense that sets up so cleanly its moral values of good versus evil, loyalty, sacrifice, bravery etc. These are clearly what we're supposed to feel, the characters passive vehicles for demonstrative teachings. Keisha Castle-Hughes, whose earth-shattering performance in Whale Rider got her nominated for an Oscar (and should have got her the win) is wasted, constantly staring into space. This is undoubtedly in keeping with a traditional version of Mary as a heroine by chance and not by action. One wonders that had Mary been played as a more of a 'leading lady' than a dutiful matriarch that the story would have been more interesting. Sensationalist yes, but what is more sensationalist than the nativity story? Joseph (Oscar Isaac) has considerably more to do, and generally succeeds, creating one of the two (yes, TWO) genuinely emotional moments throughout the film.

I'm sure christians will find this perfectly watchable, but for the rest of us The Nativity Story leaves you sighing as to how little there is to it. I don't know if this says more about me than it does about the film but somebody asked me what were the positive things about The Nativity Story. The only thing I could think of was: "I wouldn't kick Joseph out of bed".


Ron Estrada said...

Don't be so sure. I'm a Christian and I find that any attempt to do better than what God has given us in the bible generally falls flat. You're absolutely right. The Nativity is a story written in few words but its impact changed the world. And mortal Hollywood writers believe they can improve on the story. I became a believer at the age of 30. By that time I'd seen every movie ever made about the life of Christ, Moses, you name it. Nothing. But when a man simply told me the truth, that I was lost and God gave His Son so that I never need suffer the penalty of my sins, I believed. I'll probably go see the Nativity anyway, hoping my bible studies will fill in the gaps, but it's the same old story: The book is always better.

Anonymous said...

You say the reason you went to see the film was because of
"boredom." Your state of mind affected your perception, filtered what you saw and judged.

Cal said...

I have and will see many films as a result of boredom. This is because I love films. I knew I could not fully connect with The Nativity Story because of my religious preference, and stated this fully at the beginning of my review. But I can still judge this objectively in film-making terms.

This is my honest, whole opinion.

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