There's a newly famous scene in Borat where a rodeo official advises the titular character to shave his moustache so as not to arouse suspicion that he's a terrorist. What could that possibly have to do with a movie about the birth of Jesus? Well, given that said rodeo official would have to advise (probably rather awkwardly) virtually everyone in this film to do the same, a whole lot.
Many Biblical epics have graced the screen but few have made any effort to match the casting with the geography. The Nativity Story is a notable exception. In a narrative long since detached from the holiday that celebrates it, Israelite Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes), living under Roman rule in, well, zero B.C., sees a vision in which the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) tells her that she will conceive a child by the Holy Spirit. Cue the scratching of the record.
Mary takes the news a whole lot better than her family, including Joseph (Oscar Isaac) her new husband from an arranged marriage. No sooner does he have a dream that helps him get with the program than their paranoid King Herod (Ciarán Hinds) decrees a census in which all men must return to the place of their birth with their families. So, Joseph and Mary are off to Bethlehem, and for the rest of the story, see the first couple chapters of Luke or, in a pinch, Linus' speech from A Charlie Brown Christmas.
The culture and setting of the film have a feeling of authenticity that, intentionally or not, serves as a bit of counter-programming in a time when many Middle Eastern (or Middle Eastern-looking -- Castle-Hughes is from New Zealand) faces receive ignorant, knee-jerk associations with terrorists. It's not much of a coincidence that the reason given for the Pope missing the premiere of The Nativity Story at the Vatican (the first film to premiere there) involved preparation for a trip to Turkey to mend Christian/Muslim relations.
Unfortunately, social healing may be all the film has to offer. In spite of a plethora of plot the film never really feels like it's going anywhere. Part of the problem is that we never really get to know Mary and Joseph, and on a fundamental level, it's their story. In one scene, Mary and Joseph discuss the impending birth in a very frank and vulnerable way, but that's the only window we get. Given that the director is Thirteen helmer Catherine Hardwicke, that's particularly disappointing. One of the hallmarks of her debut was the raw, complex emotions of the characters. Here the performances, while admirably natural, betray no depth.
Hardwicke, while capturing the rugged beauty of the terrain, doesn't lend a directorial eye to much else. The film lacks a visual stamp, subtracting one more possible point of entry into the story. In the end, that may be the greatest factor working against the film; it lacks a point of view.
Artistically, The Nativity Story may do no more than competently tell its eponymous tale, but if it also serves to encourage audiences to associate a dark complexion and a thick beard with Joseph instead of Bin Laden, that may be an accomplishment of greater proportions.
Where ya going with that donkey, anyway?