Review of The Nativity Story

On Good Friday an Evangelical friend of mine had a movie night with The Nativity Story followed by an intermission with yummy Ice Cream (so says my two boys who are not old enough to be bound by the fasting laws of the Church) followed by The Passion of the Christ.  I was unable to get to the theaters to see the Nativity Story because Advent is always a busy time for my family and my wife and I are horribly cheap when it comes to babysitters and so are rarely able to get away for the evening, so we were excited to see the film.  Here is my review of The Nativity Story:

Just to get this out of the way, the complaints in various Catholic circles about the movie having an un-Catholic view of Mary were unfounded in my opinion.  Never once in the movie does Mary doubt God.  Never once in the movie does Mary sin.  None of the “Marian” passages from the Gospels is omitted to make her look less Holy.  The movie has no “flash-backs” that deny Mary’s Immaculate Conception and no “flash-forwards” that deny Mary her Assumption.  All in all I thought the script was well written to depict Mary as a young woman who, full of God’s grace as the Mother of God, found the strength to deal with disapproval and mocking.

The one concession I will give to those who didn’t like the portrayal of Mary was Keisha Castle-Hughes’s acting.  I don’t think she “got” Mary and so was forced to lean on some acting techniques for “generic Holy acting”.  I’m having a tough time explaining this so, as is my usual style, I’ll try to compensate for that by getting very verbose.

Mary, at least the way I see it, has the following characteristics:

  1. Full of Grace
  2. Humble before God (awestruck) 
  3. Faithful 
  4. Poor
  5. Simple (or perhaps naive is a better word?)
  6. Young

My view of how an actress should play that role is to be somewhat giddy and exuberant, in the simple and playful way that a teenage girl would be.  Then, as she is approached by God, in being awestruck, she would be very humble and submissive to God while still keeping that innocent quality of a teenage girl.  As the truth of her situation came to light with her community, the way she would communicate being Full of Grace to the audience is to blend that youthful exuberance with the peace of being able to accept the condemnation without giving ground or lashing out, something your average teenage girl doesn’t do well.

Instead, Castle-Hughes played the role VERY subdued.  She acted it like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders, even before God’s messenger comes to her, and tried to make it look as if she was at peace in her subdued-ness.  But the acting wasn’t there to sell the peace.  At best it was a veiled peace.  At worst it made her look like she was holding in her anger or at a minimum holding in that she was upset.  Often she almost looked a little “slow” or numb.  The worst scene in this regard was when she fell to her knees and told the angel “May it be done according to your will.”  She didn’t look awed and humbled… she looked mechanical and subdued, almost doped up.  As I said, I just don’t think she “got” Mary.

Now that I’ve lambasted Castle-Hughes, I should point out that I think it is an exceedingly difficult role to play.  I wouldn’t want to be the one to help a teenage girl figure out how to act out that role.  It’s difficult to communicate awestruck and humble without introducing a sense of doubt.  It’s difficult to communicate confidence in the face of trials without it looking like anger or fighting back.  It’s difficult to communicate any sense of peace or grace in the scenes she’d be asked to play.  So while I think the acting job was mediocre at best, I’m also willing to overlook that short coming because of the difficulty of the task.  It was not in my view a case of denying Mary anything due to her but merely a inability to effectively put that on the silver screen.

While Mary’s acting was the only signficantly disappointing aspect of the movie, there were a couple other things I though left something to be desired.  Most notably, the movie suffered from what I will from now on call “Sacramental Aversion Syndrome” (or SAS for short).  SAS is a frequent disease amongst Evangelical Christians who are very wary of Sacraments because of their aversion to all things Catholic, but their aversion is odd because of the many scriptural references to various sacraments (like Baptism).  One of the ways SAS often demonstrates itself is in the portrayal of the Jewish people.  There always seems to be a remarkable insistence on making the religious activities of the Jews look ridiculous.  The Navity suffered from this as well.  There were three or four completely unnecessary scenes (Herod sacrificing a bull and Mary and Joseph withnessing money-changers are the two that immediately come to mind) that seemed to be shoe-horned into the movie with the point of putting the SAS of the directors on display.  The story was about Christ’s birth, not his ministry.  There was no need to go down those paths in this movie.

Finishing off my criticisms, I also thought the production quality of the movie left something to be desired.  It was somewhere between an ‘A movie’ and a ‘B movie’.  That’s excellect quality for a Christian themed movie which often border on amateur status, but it’s still not a top-notch Hollywood quality production.  From a production quality perspective, this movie is not The Passion of the Christ.

All of that aside, The Nativity Story as a whole was a good movie.  It was very faithful to the Christian faith (despite some innocent conflicts with scripture) and did a good job of portraying what a miraculous moment Christ’s birth was.  The particulars of the moment of Christ’s birth were VERY well done.  Everything from the pacing, to the lighting (I’m willing to overlook the “spotlight triple-star”), to the acting, to the musical score all built up the moment to be every bit the miracle it was.  Additionally, I though the depiction of the Maji was remarkably good.  In fact, it stole the show from Mary and Joseph (Joseph’s role and acting was much better than Mary’s).  The depiction of Herod and his followers was very good as well.

In the end, The Nativity Story is the best movie I have seen that depicts the birth of Christ.  While it should be proud of that distinction, I left the movie both impressed and somewhat disappointed.  Impressed because it was another Christian movie for the masses in the new tradition started by The Passion.  Disappointed because it could have been so much more.

End result: 3 1/2 stars. (out of 5)

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