The tagline for The Nativity Story should be "When You Care Enough to Send the Very Best," not only because the Christian plot is all about how God sends his only son, but also because the film has all the substance, visual appeal, and excitement of a Hallmark card. As written by Mike Rich, directed by Catherine Hardwicke and acted by Keisha Castle-Hughes (Mary), Oscar Isaac (Joseph), Shoreh Aghdashloo (Elizabeth), and Ciaran Hinds (King Herod), The Nativity Story dispassionately gets the job done.
As poor Jews are rousted for taxes by their Roman occupiers, a prophecy of a messiah unsettles Herod (Hinds). The prophecy comes true when the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) visits virgin Mary and post-menopausal Elizabeth with twin miracles of conception. The young couple decides to flee Herod's Messiah-seeking census on an arduous journey from Nazareth through Jerusalem and to Bethelehem, Jesus' birthplace.
Meanwhile, in Persia, three kvetching Magi (Nadim Sawalha, Stepan Kalipha, and Eriq Ebouaney) interpret celestial signs on a set that seems to be borrowed from The Da Vinci Code. After waffling and squabbling, the three begin a journey to chase the prophecy and find the Messiah; though they contribute a tad of much needed comic relief, they're the opposite of irreverent.
Reverence is, of course, job one with a Bible-themed movie, and The Nativity Story effectively toes the lines by traditionally joining the two semi-contradictory Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke. Between them, Rich and Hardwicke only pay lip service to humanizing the embalmed story. Mary's clearly displeased and apprehensive about her arranged marriage to Joseph, and "good and decent men" Joseph, to whom Mary has been promised in marriage, must both defend himself from suspicion of sexual misconduct and consider his faith in both his intended and God (later, he voices an unanswered question: "I wonder if I will be able to teach him anything").
But these are plot points predestined to be happily resolved: turns out being God's pawns/loyal servants is a bonding experience, and with the help of loving Elizabeth, Mary comes to terms with her own public shame and focuses on protecting her child. Despite the tut-tutted threat of stoning, The Nativity Story's heroine is hardly a feminist hero; she's told by a shepherd, "We're each given a gift. Your gift is what you carry inside."
Rich confirms the clash of good and evil not only with animal-sacrificing Herod but with a snake in the water that gives Mary and Joseph a fright. Hardwicke is cautious to remain more family-friendly than Mel Gibson's record-breaking but ultra-violent The Passion of the Christ: a Crucifixion blips by in mere seconds, and Herod's mass slaughter of first-born males remains discreetly off screen. Mychael Danna's tasteful score, two carols ("O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and an incongruous "Silent Night" layered over daytime images), and chintzy special effects contribute to the film's soothing but bland confirmation of tradition.
Though The Nativity Story will likely score huge returns for its producers—if only on DVD—the film has all the sword-and-sandal stiffness and none of the camp splendor of its predecessors (except for Alessandro Giuggioli, pleasingly horrid as Herod's ambitious son Antipas). It's hard to imagine this Biblical epic on a budget enlightening or genuinely interesting anyone other than Sunday School students looking for a little more social context for the bare-bones tale, and even they risk boredom. The Nativity Story's self-satisfaction peaks when a twinkly-eyed Magi asks, as if to the audience, "How's your faith now?"
[For Groucho's interview with Shoreh Aghdashloo and Catherine Hardwicke, click here.]