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The Nativity Story
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 Beautifully filmed- The Nativity Story is a worthwhile and modest enterprise that, by and large, comes off well. It is to the credit of New Line Cinema that they were prepared to venture into this kind of religious film-making. No doubt the box-office success of The Passion of the Christ was an encouragement. Screenwriter Mike Rich has a church background and a respect for his biblical sources. Director Catherine Hardwicke brings a detailed eye to sets and the re-creation of the era.

New Zealand actress, Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) fits the role of the young girl, Mary, very well - a bit stern at first but mellowing when Joseph accepts her. Oscar Isaac is a compassionate Joseph. The Iranian actress, Shohreh Aghdashloo is Elizabeth and the Israeli actress Hiam Abbass is the mother of Mary. The whole cast, quite international, performs with the same slightly accented English.

The screenplay is well-grounded in the biblical texts, but also offers substantial historical background.

Like the apocryphal gospels of the early Christian centuries, some imaginative incidents not in the Gospels have been added.

The film's depiction of Nazareth in credible and realistic. The town was not an easy place to live in. The residents were poor and oppressed by taxation. This had its consequences on work in the town, the fields and harvests, the making of basic foods and selling them, the work of builders and carpenters. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem is beautifully portrayed, giving enough time for us to appreciate the hardships - lack of food, desert crossings, dangerous rocky paths, the swirling River Jordan, the approach to Jerusalem with road blocks, wayside preachers, fortune tellers, the bustle of the city - as well as conversation between Mary and Joseph about the future.

When the screenplay uses direct texts from the Gospels, it is not so effective. They move too quickly. This is the case when Mary arrives at Elizabeth's house and, barely turning round, Elizabeth utters the greeting verbatim from Luke and the acknowledgement of Mary as the mother of the Lord.

There are many Magi sequences, with more emphasis on the astronomy than on the Hebrew texts they also quote. Their differing characters provide touches of humour. Ciaran Hinds is a sinister, egoistic and paranoid Herod - with a rather oily Antipas, his son, giving him sinister advice.

There will be discussions about some of the visuals, especially the appearance of Gabriel. He is a voice only for Zachary. He is a swiftly place-changing physical presence to Mary (although the annunciation works quite well when it is filmed in close-ups of Mary and Gabriel in conversation). He appears briefly in Joseph's dream. There is a bird motif at various moments representing the Holy Spirit that is sometimes too long and obvious. The star and the light shining on the crib is too static and Christmas card-like.

The Silent Night ending seems a bit much but, on the other hand, it evokes memories of Christmas for the audience. This film should be popular with Christian audiences and it is hoped will have a wider appeal to non-Christians.

The Nativity Story is released on 1 December.

LONDON - 27 November 2006 - 525 words
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