The Nativity Story was released in the US last Friday, 1 December, and my first viewing of the film was on Saturday 2nd. Here follows my review.
One of the pleasures for me was that this was the first Bible film I have seen at the cinema with the whole family. My wife would not go to see The Passion of the Christ and I wouldn't dream, of course, of taking the children to that. And it was great to be sitting with the kids either side of me while we watched The Nativity Story, a film that is pitched about right to the family "PG" audience. The violence of the Slaughter of the Innocents is not gory, and is relatively short-lived. The two birth scenes (Elizabeth's and Mary's) are not graphic and again are relatively short-lived. At times I wondered whether it might be sufficiently compelling for the younger audience, but apparently it was. My nine year old had to ask a couple of times "What's going on?" but only a couple of times, and towards the beginning. For the kids, as well as for the faithful, there are enough of the traditional, familiar story markers to reassure everyone that the important bases are covered, Herod, wise men, star, shepherds, no room at the inn, but there are enough imaginative fresh elements weaved into the traditional narrative to keep the interest up.
I am very easily pleased when it comes to Bible films, especially seeing them in the cinema. So much of my access to Jesus films has been via television, video and DVD, that it is always a thrill to catch one on release in the cinema. No doubt my views on this one will change and mature in time, especially with future viewings, and my initial viewing is strongly influenced by the thrill of seeing it in the cinema, where I will return shortly for my next viewing. So when I say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of watching this film, bear in mind that context.
Not surprisingly, the basis for the story is Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2, and the sources are harmonized pretty successfully, with Luke perhaps just getting the edge. Zechariah and Elizabeth, from Luke, are major minor characters, and Herod and the magi, from Matthew, are ever-present. As expected, the plot focuses on Luke's Nazareth to Bethlehem journey, but it is framed by the Slaughter of the Innocents from Matthew, opening with this, and then presenting the remainder of the film as a flash-back beginning "One year earlier". Very little is omitted from Luke 1.5--2.19, but nothing is utilized from Luke 2.20-51, so there is nothing after the shepherds -- no temple, circumcision, Simeon or Anna. This is necessitated by the turn to Matthew after the birth, with the flight to Egypt and slaughter of the innocents, stories that make it difficult to incorporate a trip to Jerusalem, towards Herod, from whom they are fleeing in Matthew. Little is omitted from Matthew's shorter account, but there is no concession to Mary and Joseph's Bethlehem "house" in Matthew 2.11. It's Luke's (implied) stable / cave and then the flight to Egypt at the end of the film.
I didn't spot any influence from non-canonical gospels at all. Mary's parents were not named in the body of the film, for example, though they were credited as Joaquim and Anna (as in Protevangelium of James). And Joseph was a young man with no children, again in contrast to the Protevangelium, where he is a widow with sons.
Structurally, the one major non-Biblical addition to the narrative was a visit to Jerusalem en route from Nazareth to Jerusalem. Luke 2.4 has Mary and Joseph travelling from Nazareth to Bethlehem whereas Matthew has them already located in Bethlehem. But the addition of Jerusalem here makes good narrative sense. Not only is it historically plausible that those who travelled from Galilee, to Bethlehem, would go via Jerusalem (e.g. take a look at a map of first century Palestine with Roman Road System), but also it allows the film to depict Joseph and Mary coming across Herod's path without quite meeting him, seeing the Temple and thinking about the future. It also provides the opportunity for one of the best shots of the entire film, as Joseph and Mary are on the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, with the city beautifully standing proud in the background, with all the glories of CGI at its best.
The locations used are pretty familiar in Bible and ancient world films. Matera in Italy was the location for The Gospel According to St Matthew (dir. Pasolini, 1964) and The Passion of the Christ (dir. Gibson, 2004). And Ouarzazate has been used for many films and TV specials (see previous comments here), including the BBC's St Paul (2003), when I travelled to Ouarzazate with Philip Esler. It's actually pretty recognizable, and there were a few moments during The Nativity Story where I found myself saying, "I've been there!". The Moroccan company used for extras in these scenes, Dune Films, is the same.
Another BBC Documentary, called The Virgin Mary (dir. David McNab, 2002), also filmed in Ouarzazate, may have influenced The Nativity Story at odd points. When Elizabeth gives birth to John in The Nativity Story, the scene bears an uncanny resemblance to Mary's giving birth to Jesus in The Virgin Mary, especially the use of the rope dangling from the ceiling. I could not help seeing an echo of the dramatization of Mary's relationship with a Roman soldier from the same documentary too. There is a moment when Roman soldiers gallop through Nazareth and one of them stops and looks at Mary, who stares back. Perhaps there is nothing in it. It's just a moment, just a look, but it evoked for me that other, scandalous story that has only ever been dramatized, to my knowledge, in The Virgin Mary.
There were a few inevitable historical oddities and anachronisms of the kind that could have been avoided if they had talked to more scholars (I only spotted William Fulco, S.J., also used in The Passion of the Christ, in the credits). Zechariah, for example, is pictured sitting writing at a rather mediaeval looking desk. As far as we can tell, the ancients did not use desks; the anachronism here is like depicting Robin Hood using a laptop computer. Nor is it plausible that Roman troops would have been spotted galloping through Nazareth in 6-4 BCE bearing a standard in order to enforce taxation. There was a standard Jesus film cliché too, as Joseph makes a disparaging comment on the commercialism of the Jerusalem temple, so prefiguring an old-fashioned reading of Jesus' so-called Temple cleansing. I would have preferred to have seen Joseph and Mary awed and inspired by the Temple.
The low points of the film, though, were the botched attempts to depict the angelic appearances to key characters. Films have always struggled with this. How can one depict in film a angelic appearance, a divine vision, and make it plausible? The Miracle Maker (dir. Hayes and Sokolov, 2000) used traditional animation for "supernatural" events over against its claymation for the rest, and it works. Jesus of Nazareth (dir. Zeffirelli, 1977), less successfully, has Mary responding and speaking to a window during the annunciation. But The Nativity Story is worse. Little imagination has gone into the major angelic scenes. Mary meets Gabriel in Nazareth while going about her business outdoors, his angelic identity coded by his fuzzy-around-the edges focus. He reappears later in the film, standing on a hill-side and speaking to the old shepherd, his costume white but not gleaming. It's horrible. And no heavenly choir either. One gets the feeling that Catherine Hardwicke had a loss of nerve, a failure of imagination, or both. At other points, she is more than happy to go down a traditional, iconic, picture-book route. Here, given that there is no attempt to go for an every-day style human encounter, it might have been better if she'd gone for the full, gleaming robed glory of a picture-book angel. The attempt to take a middle path does not work.
On the other hand, Joseph's dream is handled very well, with the kind of imagination that one longs for in those other heavenly encounters. His dream, in which he sees people gathering to stone Mary for committing adultery, comes straight out of Jesus of Nazareth, which has the identical motif, filmed similarly. But it improves on Zeffirelli in a couple of ways. The viewer does not immediately realize that Joseph is dreaming because we see him out at work as the people gather to stone Mary. And whereas Jesus of Nazareth has the disembodied angel's voice interrupting the action, The Nativity Story has the angel appearing within the dream itself, emerging from the crowd to speak to Joseph. Joseph wakes up while the angel is still speaking (he's got about as far as "You will call his name Jesus").
On the whole, The Nativity Story is predictable; it is faithful to tradition; it ticks all the relevant boxes; but it has some real charm, a lot of warmth, some imagination, and it is just about pacey enough to keep the viewer's interest. I don't think it is destined to be a classic, but it is certainly not a clinker. There are moments when the film just goes through the motions, but these are compensated by many more moments when it has an interesting new angle on the old, old story. In the end, The Nativity Story makes an excellent account of itself because it does not try to be too ambitious. It knows what it is doing, presenting a warm-hearted retelling of the Nativity story without trying to re-invent the tradition. Don't expect too much, but don't be too cynical. Don't expect to be blown away, but don't prepare for disappointment.