NOTE: Look, we all know it's not possible, fair or honest to talk about this movie without at least a mention of "The Passion," so I'll get that detail out of the way first.
When "The Passion of The Christ" was breaking boxoffice records, there emerged two competing "explanations" for why a pornographically-violent Aramaic-language film was earning so much money. The first theory, trumpted by the film's fans and supporters, was that the massive B.O. take was evidence of a long-unslaked thirst for Christian entertainment from the American moviegoing public. The alternate theory, concluded by the film's detractors (myself included) was that the film was making most of it's money not based on it's actual "value" as a film but because of the "movement" behind it: That it's "fans" were buying tickets and talking it up not because of the film itself but because "supporting" it was touted in certain powerful circles as a method of "striking back" against, well... Democrats, "Liberals," Jews, Homosexuals and everyone else the power-brokers of the Fundies are convinced "run" the entertainment industry. (It will come as no surprise that "maybe it's a little of BOTH" was not generally considered a viable compromise by either side.)
Implicit in either theory is that the "proving" would have to wait until the NEXT wide-release Hollywood film with a devoutly Christian religious theme: If said film is a similar juggernaut, then there just might be something to the notion of "middle America" crying out for big-budget Bible movies; if it's not, well... then the theory that "Passion" was a phenomenon of marketing and politics, not filmmaking and spirituality, gains significantly more credence.
Fair or not, the first major Hollywood "Christian Film" post-"Passion" is Catherine Hardwicke's "The Nativity Story," and it has now opened in wide-release in the middle of the Christmas season... at 4th place. So, yeah... even taking into consideration a probable uptick in sales as the holiday approaches... it looks like "Passion' was a manufactured, politically-motivated exception" has the edge among the theories. Sigh. I hate being right sometimes, and this would be one of those times. Because "The Nativity Story" is a genuinely good, worthy film, and while it's all well and good to have this "see? The emperor is NAKED!" moment over "Triumph of The Mel," it's kind of sad that this film has to take the "hit" to bring it about.
"Nativity" concerns itself will the conception and birth of Christ, with the main arc of the story focused on Mary ("Whale Rider's" Keisha Castle Hughes,) here pictured in terms of (likely) historical accuracy as a teenaged girl coming of age in Nazareth; an impoverished rural community straining under the harsh rule of both Ceasar Augustus and Herod, the cunning but paranoid King of Jerusalem. Herod is deeply protective of his lavish lifestyle, the upkeep of which requires that he keep order on behalf of his Roman colonial superiors. The greatest threat to that order, in his eyes, is the mounting belief that the ancient Hebrew prophecy of the birth of a Messianic "New King" is soon at hand.
Soon after finding herself betrothed to the older (but good-hearted) Joseph, Mary gets a head's-up from the Angel Gabriel that she is to give Virgin Birth to said Messiah. This turns her into something of a local pariah among her devout village, but faith (and loyal support from her new Husband) helps them endure... until they recieve a greater test of being forced on a long journey to Bethlehem to register for census; a ploy of Herod's which coincides with the journey of three Magi ("Wise Men") who are following an astrological sign which they believe will lead them to the Messiah.
The film succeeds mightily both in being a solid, focused character drama while at the same managing a visual and structural synthesis of the general understandings and conceptions about the story. In plainer terms, the film perfectly captures the essential events, compositions and beats from the "everybody knows" version of the story while affording the characters room to become deeper than the porceline figures on Grandma's shelf this time of year.
Specifically, it gives greater nuance to Joseph, rendering him as a man compelled to do the right thing even when unsure or not able to understand what he's found himself involved in: In one terrific touch, the event of Gabriel reassuring Joseph of Mary's fidelity in a dream is presented as the angel interupting a nightmare in which Joseph imagines himself as part of a mob gathered to stone Mary for adultery; while a clever earlier scene affords the ubiquitous donkey an origin of it's own.
Also getting more dramatic attention than usual are Mary's elder cousin Elisabeth (Shoreh Agdashloo, late of "24" and "House of Sand and Fog,") and her husband Zachariah, portrayed as an older couple from whom Mary recieves basic lessons in the ways of parenthood. The oft-omitted subplot of Zachariah's temporary muting even makes an appearance, as no servicable Bible retelling can exist without at least one sequence of The Almighty being inexplicably "jerky."
The film finds a working visual balance between the traditional "nativity scene" renderings and the now-current go-to look of big-budget "ancient" and/or mystical films (it's best to just accept that "Lord of The Rings" is now the Rosetta Stone of such films for the forseeable future.) Special mention needs to be made of the score, which sublty blends the classical music and hymns generally associated with the story; listen close, you'll find the strains of "Emmanuel" and "O Holy Night" drifting in right where they ought to.
This is a terrific little movie, a well-made mini-epic superior in every way to "Passion" or most other recent religious films, period. It's bound to have more ressonance, of course, to Christians or others more immediately invested in the material, but for what it's worth it's a fine film and towards the end stirred some of my long-dormant memories of seeing/hearing this stuff told back when I was much younger and it all seemed much more involving; which I assure you is no small feat.
FINAL RATING: 8/10