Chapter and Verse

Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and Joseph (Oscar Isaac) on their way to the first Christmas in a film that carefully treads on familiar ground.
Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and Joseph (Oscar Isaac) on their way to the first Christmas in a film that carefully treads on familiar ground. (By Jaimie Trueblood -- New Line Cinema Via Associated Press)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 1, 2006

With the blockbuster success of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," it should surprise no one that Hollywood has glommed onto Jesus in a big way. And what better biblical story to reenact than the Savior's birth, made immortal everywhere, from millions of pulpits to Linus's annual speech in "A Charlie Brown Christmas"?

"The Nativity Story" made me think of Linus, and reminded me why he makes me cry every year. Starchy where Linus is spontaneous, stagy where Linus is sincere, this drab exercise in glum piety slumps where it should soar, sapping the story of its mystery and transcendence with an overriding sense of literality. As the familiar characters take their famous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, it often looks like they're treading on eggshells, painstakingly trying to avoid offense, misinterpretation or controversy with every careful step.

To its credit, "The Nativity Story," which was written by Mike Rich and directed by Catherine Hardwicke ("Thirteen," "Lords of Dogtown"), puts the virgin birth in personal and historical context. The film reminds us that Mary -- played by Keisha Castle-Hughes -- was betrothed to Joseph (Oscar Isaac) as a result of an arranged marriage; here, she's skeptical and a bit sullen at the prospect of marrying a guy she doesn't love. Cutting away from Mary's difficult life in the desert, Hardwicke portrays the three wise men prophesying the birth of a Jewish messiah, and also the court of King Herod (Ciaran Hinds), who, when he gets wind that such a king is on the way, orders all male children of a certain age in his kingdom killed. (Fans of "Rome" will no doubt find it a bit jarring to hear Hinds, who played Caesar in the HBO series, invoke himself as Herod.)

"The Nativity Story" thus sets up the journey on which these paths will inexorably cross; indeed, with Herod's dreadful plan in motion, the story has all the makings of a groundbreaking spiritual thriller. But Hardwicke plays it safe, duly hitting all the familiar marks and trotting out all the familiar tropes, from the gauzily filmed Gabriel during the Annunciation scene to a manger that looks like it was recently confiscated from a town square in an ACLU raid.

The marvelous Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo brings earthy realism to her performance as Mary's cousin Elizabeth, whose own late-in-life pregnancy augurs the miracle to come. But Castle-Hughes, who was so vibrant in her 2002 debut "Whale Rider," is disappointing as Mary, whom she portrays in an affectless performance that seems of a piece with the monochrome olive palette of the desert backdrop. There are fleeting attempts at humor -- the three kings and their banter while following yonder star suggest the origins of the term "cracking wise" -- but for the most part "The Nativity Story" serves mostly to illustrate rather than illuminate the rote story.

There's one exception to this, and it's the focus the filmmakers put on Joseph, who enjoys a pride of place usually missing from the Mary-centric narrative. Here, Joseph is portrayed as an honorable, hardworking man, patient with his future wife's ambivalence and understanding when she presents him with the virgin birth, a circumstance most men would reject out of hand or, more likely at the time, punish with the back of it.

The most intriguing thing about "The Nativity Story" transpires during the couple's extraordinary personal journey, advancing a radical idea in an otherwise long slog of a cinematic Sunday school lesson: that Jesus became who He was not only because He was the son of God, but because He was the son of a good man.

The Nativity Story (102 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for some violent content.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company