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The Nativity Story (Catherine Hardwicke, 2006)

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  • noelbotevera
    Sleep in heavenly peace Noel Vera Catherine Hardwicke s The Nativity Story (2006) sad to say, feels like a stillborn effort; you want to poke at it with a
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 14, 2006
      Sleep in heavenly peace

      Noel Vera

      Catherine Hardwicke's "The Nativity Story" (2006) sad to say, feels
      like a stillborn effort; you want to poke at it with a stick or the
      tip of your shoe, but the thing just lies there on the big screen,
      limp and rather lifeless, with a strong soporific effect (I had to
      stand at the back of the theater to stay awake, myself).

      It's not a bad movie or at least not an actively evil one, as Mel
      Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was. It doesn't take the
      lunatic writings of Anne Catherine Emmerich (or possibly Clemens
      Brentano, who may have added to or heavily rewritten her) and turn
      them into an ostensibly pious picture that's really an excuse for
      beautifully photographed torture porn and vicious anti-Semitism (I
      hope no one out there still harbors doubts--Gibson pretty much
      revealed his heart's true sentiments in that famously suppressed
      police report. "In vino veritas," if you like).

      Hardwicke's name in the credits was a sign of hope; she had
      independent filmmaking creds, and a rep for being able to show the
      spikier, more painful, or at least honest side of teenage youths,
      judging from her work in "Lords of Dogtown" and "Thirteen." At the
      same time Keisha Castle-Hughes was an intriguing choice for Mary--
      what with the bright spirit and defiant strength she showed
      in "Whale Rider" (the role that made her (at the age of 16) the
      youngest ever to be nominated for a Best Actress doorstop--sorry,
      Oscar), you hoped that she might shake the dust off the character,
      give her Mary a distinctive personality, a similar brightness and
      strength.

      Hardwicke and Castle-Hughes do best in the early scenes, when the
      camera captures the simple if crude everyday life of ancient
      Palestine--the cheese-making, the hide tanning, the olive-pressing,
      the heat and slow pace of a civilization that made do entirely
      without electricity, its people traveling from town to town by camel
      or donkey (it helps that the cast isn't made up of celebrity stars,
      with all the silliness that might have inspired--think Olivia Hussey
      trying to pass for Robert Powell's mother in Franco
      Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth"). When Joseph (the Guatemalan Oscar
      Isaac--nice to see them not using Caucasians for the major
      characters (the way Gibson did when he plunked Jim Caviezel in the
      middle of a sea of Jewish faces) but couldn't they have at least
      stayed in the approximate region (the Middle East) for their
      choices? Or do all brown faces look alike to them?) finds out she's
      pregnant, his dismay and their dilemma is at least briefly sketched,
      if not fully fleshed out.

      That's my problem with the picture, basically: it feels more
      sketched than fleshed out. As the already familiar story progresses,
      you can see the actors losing the everyday texture that Hardwicke
      worked so hard to establish in the opening sequence (the cast had
      been trained in the use of crude farming and woodworking tools) and
      calcify into living statues, ready for worship. The photography,
      which starts out as grittily documentarylike, ossifies into your
      standard-issue iconic lighting, complete with a Holy Floodlight for
      the Holy Manger; the music, which starts out nicely low-key, in the
      latter part ascends slowly to the stars on the strains of a full
      orchestra and the voices of a heavenly choir.

      And it isn't as if they actually dealt with anything substantial
      along the way, despite the promising first half; you don't get a
      sense of what Joseph must have really felt like, being married to a
      woman who (far as he knows) just cuckolded him (his dismay at the
      pregnancy fritters away, more perfunctory than profound); you don't
      feel that Mary has much of a temper, or spirit, or even personality.
      Would the heroine of "Whale Rider" have ridden so meekly to her
      fate, or would she push her husband off his mount, giddy-upped up
      the mountain trail, and gone forth in search of adventures unknown?

      Well, maybe nothing so radical--but I'd have expected at least one
      good fight, a shrieking, yelling, face-slapping eye-gouging battle
      between the two, if not during honeymoon night or after the reveal
      that she's pregnant, then at least somewhere on the trip to
      Bethlehem, maybe during the stressed-out moments when Joseph can't
      find a room (even that, so full of possibilities, was a letdown; no
      loud rejections by busy innkeepers or slammed doors, just someone
      giving in and showing them a stable). And would it have been too
      much to ask two reasonably attractive youngsters to act as if they
      were attracted to each other--a smooching session, a bit of heavy
      petting, perhaps (okay, she's a trophy wife, and it was an arranged
      marriage--but couldn't Joseph have at least been allowed to show a
      bit of testosterone)?

      Anthony Burgess' book "Man of Nazareth" (which I believe was an
      expansion (and less reverent version) of his script for "Jesus of
      Nazareth") told the Nativity story with more imaginative flair, I
      thought--Mary was a temperamental young girl, Joseph a serene old
      man who had suffered an accident in his youth (hence his lack of
      libido), Herod a psychopath (Ciaran Hinds, who plays Herod, is good,
      but not as good as Burgess' bloated monster). The simple but
      effective characterization helped flavor the story, while the odd
      bits of comedy helped spice it up (in the movie the Three Wise Men
      were played as if they were the Three Stooges; in Burgess' novel the
      angel Gabriel acted like a kind of world-weary standup comedian).

      Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Il vangelo secondo Matteo" (The Gospel
      According to Mathew, which I'm guessing heavily influenced at least
      the first half of Hardwick's movie) shows a similar fidelity to the
      text, but you sense that Pasolini's film, arguably the greatest ever
      made on the subject (though my personal favorite is Martin
      Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ"), hews to the text out of
      a sense of rigorous discipline, out of a need--no, a lust--to
      present Christ's story as plainly and unsentimentally as possible.
      His Christ doesn't float on a cloud, or make vague, gassy gestures;
      he walks straight ahead, eyes firmly fixed on the horizon, and
      speaks scripture directly to the screen. This Christ isn't some
      forgiving older brother or effeminate teacher but a revolutionary,
      fierce and uncompromising. Castle-Hughes' Mary could use some of his
      spine.

      (First published in Businessworld, 12/8/06)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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