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With: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar Isaac, Hiam Abbass, Shaun Toub, Ciarán Hinds, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Stanley Townsend, Emilia Fortunato, Alexander Siddig, Nadim Sawalha, Eriq Ebouaney, Stefan Kalipha
Written by: Mike Rich
Directed by: Catherine Hardwicke
MPAA Rating: PG for some violent content
Running Time: 101
Date: 11/24/2006

The Nativity Story (2006)

1 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Astray in a Manger

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

At a glance, The Nativity Story might appear to be a new Christmas classic, one with the dignity that Deck the Halls lacked. But in reality, it's just another awkward Biblical epic with no idea how to deal with that clunky dialogue or how to tell its story visually. One of the greatest stories ever told has become one of the year's worst movies.

Writer Mike Rich (Finding Forrester, The Rookie, Radio) tackled the film's two-thousand year-old speech patterns, and he came up with the same answer that every writer over the past 100 years has: take out the contractions (use "I will" rather than "I'll") and substitute slightly longer words whenever possible. So if a character wants to say, "make sure" to do something, he now says, "make certain" to do something.

Hellraising director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown), who seems wrong for this material, paints everything in drab grays and draws unnecessary attention to her lead actors with cumbersome close-ups. Then she decides to cover up the talk by giving the actors bits of business to do: wrapping bundles of straw, kneading dough, or picking through bowls of berries. The actors look as clumsy fiddling with these props as they do reciting the stale words.

The story begins as the one-note villain King Herod (CiarĂ¡n Hinds) attempts to keep his stranglehold on the land by viciously and cruelly collecting taxes. Into this miserable existence comes the lovely young Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes, from Whale Rider). Though she is content to collect bundles of straw, her family betroths her to Joseph (Oscar Isaac), a man she barely knows. An angel appears to her, telling her that the Holy Spirit has impregnated her and that her child will be the Savior. Joseph doesn't believe her until he receives a visit from the same angel. The new couple hits the road, thanks to Herod's census, which requires every man to return to his hometown, and they arrive in Bethlehem in time for the Holy Birth.

The Three Wise Men (played by Nadim Sawalha, Eriq Ebouaney and Stefan Kalipha) are here, too, only they behave a bit more like the Three Stooges, bickering and making jokes. When King Herod invites them for dinner to milk information from them about the Savior, they actually tell him! So much for being wise...

Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo turns up playing Mary's older cousin, who gets pregnant despite her age. She offers living proof that Mary's not crazy, which seems to subvert the idea of faith. Indeed, the movie lacks any kind of spiritual tingle.

The Nativity Story picks up slightly once Mary and Joseph are alone together on the road, but only slightly. The silly dialogue boils down to a kind of lovers' shorthand, which is better than all the stupid expositional stuff we otherwise have to listen to. Even the ending, which should have enough power to carry itself, is riddled with unwieldy moments.

Upon leaving the theater, a colleague remarked that the story was much more powerful when Linus told it in A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) -- my sentiments exactly.

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