In the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, common wisdom had it that there was something you were supposed to understand about The Passion of the Christ in order to understand the voters of the heartland, or the return to old-fashioned values, or whatever it was the liberal elite (remember them?) just didn’t get about the wholesome populism of Red America. To observe that The Passion was simply a bad movie was far from a simple gesture; it positioned you, willy-nilly, in a camp with Michael Moore and Cindy Sheehan and SpongeBob SquarePants and all manner of lefty agitators.
Two years later, there’s no longer any imperative to pay lip service to bad religious kitsch, and for that, Lord, I’m deeply grateful.
Not, mind you, that I’m equating Catherine Hardwicke, director of The Nativity Story(Buena Vista), with Mel Gibson. Hardwicke’s new retelling of the Gospel account of the conception and birth of Jesus, is fatuous, sappy, and dull, but it’s neither sadistic nor bigoted. I don’t doubt that Hardwicke and her screenwriter, Mike Rich, who’s an avowed believer, were uncynically earnest in their desire to translate the Gospel story to the screen. It’s just that the best of intentions and a 2,000-year-old heartbreaker of a story are not enough to make a compelling film. You need a point of view and something to say, two things that the ploddingly pious Nativity Story never manages to conjure.
Like an uninspired altarpiece or a by-the-numbers religious pamphlet, the movie simply checks off, one by one, the well-known stations of the Biblical tale. Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is a teenager in a Judaean village whose parents have arranged her marriage to Joseph (Oscar Isaac) out of financial necessity. The news comes that Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo), long past the age of fertility, has miraculously conceived a child who will grow up to be John the Baptist. Soon after, the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) appears to Mary to announce that she has been chosen to bear the son of God. From there it’s an interminable donkey ride to Bethlehem, where Mary will decorously give birth to our savior in a set backlit to look like a Christmas paperweight (though the newborn Jesus, strangely, is scarcely seen at all). Meanwhile, the cruel King Herod (Ciarán Hinds), fearing the Old Testament prophecy of the Messiah, orders the slaughter of firstborn children throughout the land.
It seems odd that Hardwicke, who coaxed superb performances from both Evan Rachel Wood and Holly Hunter in the emotionally raw coming-of-age story Thirteen, would be content with such a placid, even submissive Mary. As she proved in Whale Rider, Castle-Hughes has no shortage of spark. If only the movie had tweaked expectations enough to give her Mary a Gethsemane moment, in which she struggled to reconcile the directive of her God with her natural adolescent desire to rebel, to have fun, maybe even to taste the pleasures of the flesh. Oscar Isaac’s Joseph gets just a hint of such a moment when a merchant woman in Jerusalem, blessing him and his pregnant wife, assures him that “To see yourself in a young face, there is no greater joy.” For just a moment we think about Joseph’s daily trials, squiring around a wife that everyone believes has cuckolded him, denied even the simple joys of fatherhood. Sure, he gets a couple of moments of tormented doubt, but wouldn’t it be great if Mary and Joseph had one big squabble en route to Bethlehem, the road-trip fight to end all road-trip fights?
The movie’s best scenes are the few that dare to risk a little playfulness, usually involving the Three Wise Men, Larry, Curly, and Moe … I mean, Balthasar (Eriq Ebouaney), Gaspar (Stefan Kalipha), and Melchior (Nadim Sawalha) . I liked watching the three kings pack for their journey to follow the northern star, lovingly bundling their frankincense and myrrh as Balthasar gripes, “I need my dates and nuts!”
But forget about iconoclasm; The Nativity Story is so cautious it lacks even a theology. When Mary asks Elizabeth, “Why is it me God has asked?,” neither her cousin nor the movie has any answer, or seemingly much interest in the question. It’s this drably devotional quality, and not the use of religious subject matter per se, that’s the problem with the movie. Films like Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ or Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture, however flawed, take scripture as the occasion for a wild flight of imagination. Even The Passion, in its sick way, seemed legitimately curious about its subject: What did it feel like for Jesus to get that umpteenth lash from the Romans, or have a nail driven into his hand? The Nativity Story, which ends with a solemn Latin version of the 19th-century German hymn “Silent Night,” is as lively and thought-provoking as a plaster Christmas crèche on a churchyard lawn.