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The Nativity Story (review)

Who’s Your Baby Daddy?

Jesus of Nazareth. He’s kinda like Sherlock Holmes. Or Superman. Even if you’ve never read the book about him, or seen any of the movies, you know his story. It’s just sorta seeped into the warp and weft of the culture — you can’t avoid it.

So why would anyone make a film about him — about any of these characters — that gives it to you straight, that doesn’t offer any surprising interpretations, eschews all subtext that might give you something to chew on, something to make you look at the story anew?

If anyone says it’s a Mystery, I’ll strangle them.
Jesus of Nazareth, of course, is somewhat more important a character to a lot of people than even Sherlock Holmes or Superman, and it seems that in an effort not to offend those people, we got a movie that will appeal only to them… maybe. Slavishly reverent, it is accidentally hilarious in its earnestness — and in its sincere attempts at a touch of humor; it will please believers who don’t want their faith tested in the least, who don’t want to entertain any ideas that might undermine what they accept as true, even if the questioning eventually only strengthened their beliefs.

For instance, you might expect an immaculate-conception film from director Catherine Hardwicke — who made the harrowing Thirteen, about the secret lives of teenage girls — to at least explore the idea that Mary, a supposedly chaste young woman bethrothed to a good and decent man, might not have been entirely telling the truth that an angel came to her and revealed to her that God Almighty himself had chosen her for his bride, never mind that Joseph guy, and hence the swollen belly. This is a culture that stones to death unwed mothers, that much is made clear, but the suggestion that perhaps Mary was raped by a Roman soldier — who do thrown their weight around, and enjoy it, and why wouldn’t a nice girl make up a story rather than admit to such shame? — is dismissed as soon as it is broached. I’m not suggesting that what was always going to be a movie more for believers than for doubters should have completely pulled the religio-mystical rug out from under this tale, but the ease with which absolutely everyone — Mary’s parents, her husband, even the folk of their little village — either accept her outrageous claim or seem to forget all about what they believe to be an egregious, taboo-breaking transgression pulls the rug of plausibility out from under the film as a result.

Weirdest thing about The Nativity Story? The Three Wise Men have been turned into something close to the Three Stooges. Holy comic relief, Batman: they all but cock one another in the head as they make their astronomical observations — “That’s Venus, if I’m right… and I usually am,” says one of the three wise guys — and argue about whether to make the long journey west to greet the new messiah. Balthasar doesn’t want to go. “I need my dates, my nuts, my spices. What about my wine?” What about your whine, dude?

And so we get a movie with all the drama — and precisely the humor — of an elementary school Christmas pageant, and you may want to give milk and cookies to everyone involved for their effort, but it’s still not going to thrill anyone not heavily invested in the story to begin with. Keisha Castle-Hughes (who stunned us in Whale Rider), as Mary, is lovely, but she has little to do but look pretty and put upon and scared, which isn’t her fault — she’s got little room to move. (And the poor thing, who is herself now famously pregnant as a teenager, though she does not claim divine intervention, is being denigrated in the press and by some former fans rather like I suspect young Mary herself would have actually been.) Shohreh Aghdashloo (X-Men: The Last Stand, American Dreamz), as Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, also miraculously pregnant with Jesus’ cousin John, is as easily elegant as always. But even fantastic actors like Ciaran Hinds (Miami Vice), as King Herod, and Alexander Siddig (Syriana), as the angel Gabriel, aren’t asked to do much but stand there and look fabulous in their costumes. And they do. But so do the characters in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular Living Nativity.

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MPAA: rated PG for some violent content and mild language

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
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  • kirk anderson

    So…..why would I want my faith challenged all of time? Or am I to pretend for the sake of your column, that I don’t live in a culture that isn’t shy about doing so?
    Maybe I just once, want to go to a major motion picture that supports my faith.
    Is there something wrong in that?

  • http://www.xanga.com/razzendahcuben Keith

    “and it seems that in an effort not to offend those people, we got a movie that will appeal only to them… maybe.”

    Ah, indeed. How silly that someone would make a movie so as not to offend them… those ignorant bigots that already have a million and one movies respecting their beliefs…

    “Slavishly reverent, it is accidentally hilarious in its earnestness — ”

    Yes, you were laughing out loud, having a rollicking good time.

    “and in its sincere attempts at a touch of humor; it will please believers who don’t want their faith tested in the least, who don’t want to entertain any ideas that might undermine what they accept as true, even if the questioning eventually only strengthened their beliefs.”

    Once again, MaryAnn Johanson reminds us that the purpose of a movie is to undermine one’s beliefs*. What a great cause, MaryAnn! May Hollywood be ashamed for not producing more movies that attack Christianity.

    *Namely Christian beliefs.

  • Mark

    Ditto what Keith and Kirk said.

    MarryAnn, you use the most outrageous premise for critiquing a movie. Because it doesn’t twist and distort the facts it must not be good? If I wanted to see a movie that insulted my faith, I would watch Dogma.

  • Claudia

    I didn’t even read the review. I just saw the red light, and gleefully scrolled down for the inevitable christian whine-fest. Which reminds me, I should check the comments to your Passion of Mel Gibson review. They should be good for a laugh too.

    I love it when people get defensive over someone’s opinion of a movie. I love it even more when they use the word “fact” in association with anything to do with the bible or religion, and fail to see the irony.

  • MaryAnn

    I wonder, Claudia, if any of these other commenters have even seen the film. Preaching to the choir can make a movie tedious, if that’s *all* a movie does, even if you’re in the choir and are sympathetic to the preaching.

    I also wonder why a devout Christian would come to an avowed, public atheist for an opinion on a movie like this one. I am not the audience for this film — what do they expect me to say?

  • lunarangel01

    Exactly. Doesn’t the quote on your homepage say that you are “biast?” lol. When it comes to religion or lack of it, everyone is biased, so going to an athiest to hear her sing the praises of a Christian film is like going to a Red Sox fan to hear him sing the praises of the Yankees.

  • caprig

    Well, although you caustic comments about Christianity would lead one to believe that nothing that this movie did would meet your approval, I do have to say that this movie was horrible.

    My husband and I hated it. It had possibilities, but it was grossly inaccuarate, incomplete, choppy, morose, and boring.

    The cast of characters was rather like having Mercedes and only driving it up and down the 10 ft driveway- never more.

    I think it was the only time in my life that I ever felt like I did not care about Mary, Joseph, the baby or anything- I just wanted to get away from this morose story. Anyone with clinical depression should stay away. :D

    I WANTED to like this movie, but wow, did it turn me off. It COULD have been a good movie, but wasn’t.

  • MaryAnn

    If I wanted to see a movie that insulted my faith, I would watch Dogma.

    Far as I can see, *Dogma* is one of the more profoundly Christian movies I’ve ever seen. My review:

    http://www.flickfilosopher.com/blog/1999/11/dogma_review.html

  • MaryAnn

    Maybe I just once, want to go to a major motion picture that supports my faith.
    Is there something wrong in that?

    I didn’t say there was anything wrong with that. But it makes for a movie that will appeal ONLY to people who want their faith supported. Which means it’s not going to appeal to people like me, and people who read my reviews for guidance on moviegoing because they’re of a like mind to me. Get it?

  • http://www.xanga.com/razzendahcuben razzendahcuben

    I love it when people get defensive over someone’s opinion of a movie. I love it even more when they use the word “fact” in association with anything to do with the bible or religion, and fail to see the irony.

    I could care less about seeing the film. Its the ridiculous reasoning behind MaryAnn’s arguments that should bother everything—Christian or not.

    “Facts” are unjustifiable apart from an eternal, omniscient, revealed god, which is why so many atheists are universal skeptics*. So it looks like the irony is on you. :)

    *read: fools

    I also wonder why a devout Christian would come to an avowed, public atheist for an opinion on a movie like this one. I am not the audience for this film — what do they expect me to say?

    You could admit upfront that you hate biblical Christianity, instead of hiding behind hypocritical nonsense like, “Movies should always test our beliefs. And by beliefs, I mean Christian beliefs.”

  • MaryAnn

    Sorry, but can you point to where I said or implied that “movies should always test our beliefs”?

    Also, could you point to where I said or implied that I “hate biblical Christianity”? And also, could you explain what nonbiblical Christianity would be, so I can figure out if I hate that, too?

    “Facts” are unjustifiable apart from an eternal, omniscient, revealed god,

    Um, what?

  • Magess

    Wow, MaryAnn, did some Christian site link to you?

    Facts are unjustifiable without God. That, you see, is why sciency folks think religious folks are looney. 1 + 1 = 2 is only true because there is God! And if God decided to change it, then 1 +1 = 3. I guess we’re just lucky that he approves of gravity.

  • http://www.xanga.com/razzendahcuben razzendahcuben

    If you don’t hate biblical Christianity, what do you think of it? The Bible claims to be absolutely true and that it alone provides the correct worldview. The Bible says that you are a sinner and will be judged by a holy God. This is very offensive, no?

    it will please believers who don’t want their faith tested in the least, who don’t want to entertain any ideas that might undermine what they accept as true, even if the questioning eventually only strengthened their beliefs.

    From this one can infer that having one’s beliefs tested is a good thing. But this would also include your beliefs. Yet wouldn’t a movie about God coming to earth as a man test your beliefs? After all, you are a naturalist. So you’ve condemned the movie for not testing the beliefs of some, even you should recognize that it does test the beliefs of others! But in that case, what are you complaining about? You’re complaining as though the testing of beliefs is only applicable to Christians, thus my charge of hypocrisy.

    Oh my, Magess… the irony is so vicious!

    Mathematics is unjustifiable apart from God. Mathematics presupposes order and immaterial concepts—neither of which can be justified in a naturalistic universe.

    For example, have you ever seen a number? Have you ever experienced a number? No. Numbers only exist in minds. Sure, quantities of things do exist, but the concept of “numbers” is abstract and immaterial.

    Problem: According to naturalism, everything is material. So my question is, where are the numbers? Have you observed and tested them with the scientific method? If not, how do you know they exist?

    Science itself presupposes God. Science presupposes induction, which presupposes the uniformity of nature. All natural laws presuppose the uniformity of nature, actually. But how do naturalists justify the uniformity of nature? “Because every time I experience nature it is uniform.” Problem: this is an inductive argument, and the naturalist is trying to justify induction. Thus the naturalist is only begging the question—”I know it’s true ’cause it is!” But that’s no justification! However, I know that nature is uniform because God has promised that He will sustain and uphold nature in a uniform fashion.

    These same types of transcendental arguments can be performed with regard to logic, memory, truth, morality, etc. In short, without God there is no knowledge.

    I hope that makes sense!

  • MaryAnn

    It doesn’t make sense. It’s loony.

  • http://www.xanga.com/razzendahcuben razzendahcuben

    I can justify knowledge and intelligibility and you can’t, and yet I’m the loony one.

    Indeed…

  • MaryAnn

    You think you’ve “justified knowledge”? Wow.

  • http://www.xanga.com/razzendahcuben razzendahcuben

    Knowledge is justified, true belief. Proverbs 1:7 says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. I take this on faith. If I don’t, I can’t justify knowledge. This can be demonstrated through internally critiquing any other worldview, such as naturalism. Atheism is hands down the easiest worldview to refute, since its self-defeating in more ways than I can even count. (I take it back, postmodernism is probably easier to refute…)

  • MaryAnn

    Well, the Book of Bob says that bobism can be explained only through Bob, and I take that on faith. Because if I don’t, then I can’t justify my bobism.

  • http://www.xanga.com/razzendahcuben Keith

    There’s a big difference between conceptual justification and actual justification… sorry. Your conceptual ‘bobism’ only results in conceptual knowledge. :-/

    Still, clever try!

  • Kim

    I do think it’s a bit of a silly notion that this movie would have to undermine Christian beliefs to be interesting to you, Mary Ann. I already know that Romeo and Juliet die in the end, too; it’s the storytelling that matters, challenging or no. I don’t believe in Lord of the Rings the same way that a few hideous malformed trollgeeks (including some of my friends, and possibly my girlfriend) do, but I can still love the movies wholeheartedly.

    Suffice it to say, “The Nativity Story” doesn’t work in the same way that “Lord of the Rings” does, but asking this movie to challenge beliefs is silly. I wanted a religious version of “E.T.” or something with this one, and I didn’t get it.

  • MaryAnn

    I do think it’s a bit of a silly notion that this movie would have to undermine Christian beliefs to be interesting to you, Mary Ann

    You’re right: that is a silly notion. Good thing I didn’t say that.

    Are you suggesting that there are people who “believe” in *The Lord of the Rings* the way that people “believe” in the Bible? Cuz there simply is no comparison.

  • http://bzero.livejournal.com Bzero

    Have you ever read, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal? It does a much better job at postulating a “What If?” scenerio that’s enjoyable even to a non-Christian like me.