The Nativity Story

Covering the 2006 movie "The Nativity Story," about the story of Mary and Joseph
and their journey together as they bring the Messiah into the world.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Blogger disappointed "Nativity" not ranked among Top 10 Family Films

Um, About That Missing Family Movie?!

Like a lot of people, I love lists, and I love the Beliefnet team of gifted bloggers, writers, and editors, but I have to say it's a glaring oversight that "The Nativity Story" doesn't make the list of Top Ten Family Films of 2006, which Sharon Linnea--Beliefnet's Reel Inspirational columnist--compiled.

For years, young people have not had a definitive version of the Christmas story to watch, rent, buy, or give. The closest we've had is the Peanuts special, which at least recites the story. The makers of "The Nativity Story" may not have made an Oscar winner or even an all-time classic, but they made the best we have so far, bringing the drama of the story to life on a screen much bigger and with a sound much broader than the classic Sunday School flannel board lesson. And in our media culture, kids deserve this.

When some people think of classic love stories, they think of Romeo and Juliet, or perhaps something they saw with their first boyfriend. But I think the Christmas story is the greatest love story of all time. Jesus left heaven, became one of us to show us a visible image of an invisible God, lived among us for awhile to know us and to be known, died to make a relationship with God possible and rose from the dead to prove it was all true.

I'd love it if future Christmas seasons brought us sequels that focused on each area of his life, death, and resurrection. Movies have an ability to transcend denominations and sectarian biases and just tell a story, and families are well-served to have something so meaningful to then discuss together.

"The Nativity" may not have some of the accoutrements of the typical feel-good holiday flick, but it's content alone makes it an essential for the spiritual seeker.

posted by Douglas Howe @ 2:06 PM Permalink Comments

Monday, December 25, 2006

What was the Star of Bethlehem?

"Nativity" uses the astronomical conjunction of Jupiter, Venus, and the star Regulus to explain the Star divinely leading the Magi to Bethlehem; here are other theories as to what the Star may have been.

What was the Star of Bethlehem?
Was it a comet? A supernova? Or something else?

The Star of Bethlehem has left its mark on the gospels as well as a constellation of holiday songs. Was it purely a divine sign, created miraculously to mark Jesus’ birth? Or was it an astronomical event in its own right? John Mosley, program supervisor for the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, says there are several scientific scenarios for the “Star of Wonder.”

Through the years, astronomers and others have proposed a variety of objects for the Christmas star — comets, an exploding star or a grouping of planets. Some suggest that the star was a miracle created especially by God. Such a suggestion cannot be proved or disproved, and it is entirely outside the realm of science. But there’s no need to resort to miracles, given the actual astronomical events of the time.

The first thing is to determine the approximate date of Jesus’ birth. Then we look into the sky of that period and try to identify the star. It doesn’t work the other way around: Since virtually any year can boast at least one reasonably interesting sky event, the astronomy must follow the history.

Ruling out prime suspects
Let’s assume, as many historians have, that the most likely time frame for the birth of Jesus was between 3 B.C. and A.D. 1. Let’s also assume that the Star of Bethlehem could be observed by skywatchers elsewhere in the world, and not just by the Magi — who are known as “wise men” or “kings” but were actually priests who relied on astrology.

These assumptions would rule out some of the prime suspects in the mystery: comets, brightening stars known as novae, and exploding stars known as supernovae. The Chinese, who did a particularly good job of cataloging astronomical phenomena, recorded no such phenomena during the years in question.

Beyond the timing issue, there’s another consideration: A comet or supernova big enough to attract the wise men’s attention would have been widely noticed by royalty and commoners as well. But King Herod and his advisers seemed not to know or care about the star until the astrologers from the east came to visit.

However, if we suppose that the “star” actually referred to the planets, the situation is less problematic. The movements and groupings of planets in the night sky were of exceeding interest to astrologers and were closely tracked around the world. Historical records and modern-day computer simulations indicate that there was a rare series of planetary groupings, also known as conjunctions, during the years 3 B.C. and 2 B.C.

The show started on the morning of June 12 in 3 B.C., when Venus could be sighted very close to Saturn in the eastern sky. Then there was a spectacular pairing of Venus and Jupiter on Aug. 12 in the constellation Leo, which ancient astrologers associated with the destiny of the Jews.

Between September of 3 B.C. and June of 2 B.C., Jupiter passed by the star Regulus in Leo, reversed itself and passed it again, then turned back and passed the star a third time. This was another remarkable event, since astrologers considered Jupiter the kingly planet and regarded Regulus as the “king star.”

The crowning touch came on June 17, when Jupiter seemed to approach so close to Venus that, without binoculars, they would have looked like a single star.

Rewarding search
The whole sequence of events could have been enough for at least three astrologers to go to Jerusalem and ask Herod: “Where is he that is born King of the Jews, for we have seen his star in the east and are come to worship him.”

Now, this doesn’t mean that astrology works. We haven’t ruled out other possibilities for the Star of Bethlehem. And the mere existence of interesting celestial events does nothing to prove that the birth of Jesus was accompanied by a star, that the Magi existed, or even that the Nativity took place as described in the Bible.

But it does make our search more rewarding to find a truly interesting astronomical event that happened during the most likely time for the Nativity.

This article is based on John Mosley’s 1987 book, “The Christmas Star,” which is available from the Griffith Observatory. “The Christmas Star” addresses many other questions about the season, such as: When was Christ born? Who were the Magi? Why is Christmas observed on Dec. 25?

© 2006 MSNBC Interactive

Friday, December 22, 2006

Infuze interviews Catherine Hardwicke

After directing the gritty, arthouse films Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, director Catherine Hardwicke has transformed the birth of Christ into a feature film with The Nativity Story. In this exclusive interview, she discusses the movie with Robin Parrish telling us the premiere at the Vatican, the intense scouting processes involved and what she's working on next.


Robin: I wanted to ask you a little bit about your process. What does your process as a director look like for a film like The Nativity Story?

Catherine: I got the script in the middle of January of this year. It was sent to me in a stack of scripts from my agency. I read it, and started getting really excited. So I did some research and found out that Mary really was only thirteen or fourteen years old, according to all of the scholars. I started downloading pictures, and I researched the stars. What could have made the Star of Bethlehem shine so brightly? I got a lot of images and photos together, even before I went to the interview.

Then I went in to the meeting with the studio saying, "These are some of the ideas that I have, this is what I think we could do to make the script better and richer. Here's visually how it could look. Here's where we could film it..." I went in to my initial job interview with a lot of ideas, a lot of pictures and books and things to get them excited. So they picked me to do it.

Next I had to make a schedule explaining how I would get the movie done in time to come out this Christmas. I realized I needed to get on a plane and get to Jerusalem to do some research in two days. I needed to understand what the Holy Land was like. So I was on a plane two or three days later. I took my camera and I took a zillion photographs of everything, tried to talk to everyone I could. I was even researching on the plane ride. I had to know what was life like? I needed details of that life, I needed to absorb it so that I understood it all the best I could.

I also worked with the writer, Mike Rich, who was in Seattle. Any notes I would come up with, things I would learn, I would email to him. "Oh, this would be a great detail!" Basically, during the prep time, you're just using everything you can to learn about the subject, to absorb it, and to make the script better, richer, and deeper.

Also, you're trying to figure out who should be in the movie. You're meeting with casting directors. In our case, we were meeting with casting directors in six different cities: Rome, Tel Aviv, London, Paris, New York, and L.A. It was a worldwide search to find really great actors that looked believable to be from the Middle East. So every night I would come back from location scouting, and I would go to a secure website we had and look at the girls that had auditioned in Tel Aviv earlier that day, for example. I watched their auditions, and then I would say something like, "These three seem to be the most powerful or the most interesting. When I get to Tel Aviv, I'd like to meet these three."

At the same time, you're scouting locations. We had to decide very quickly, where we were going to shoot this movie. I took my little digital camera everywhere, to the locations that I thought would work. The locations we went with were in southern Italy and Morocco. But I would photograph everything, and then scan it all into my computer at night and try to organize it into which scenes each location would be useful for. Then I would go back to the map and try to figure out how to make all this make sense from a realistic point of view. How could we do it without having to move to new locations every five minutes, what could we consolidate to help with finances and resources... It's all about making a real plan for shooting the movie.

Then I met with the actors. You do auditions, and they read through scenes for you, and I try to get a sense of who would be great for each role. In the meantime, I'm sending emails and phone calls back to the studio, and try to talk them into things like, "But I think this guy would be great for Joseph!" Then you hire all of the crew people that are going to make it all happen. You need a few different choices for costume designer and production designer and the composer and all those things. And they'll come to their interview the same way I did, with lots of ideas of their own based on their own research. Each craftperson brings their own level of expertise, so you try to pick the right person for that job.

Then you start actually working! (Laughs.)


Once you hire your lead actor and actress, the costume designer can start making drawings of costumes and making actual clothes. I told the costume designer that I wanted the people's clothing in Nazareth to match the color of the sheep. Because that's where they got all their wool. The stones at the location are what their houses would have been made of, so the houses had to match the color of the land. You have to make it come alive and be organic and real. The shooting process, which is two months or more. On our movie, it was only two months. Some movies spend almost a year filming; it depends on how much money you have in the budget.

So you're filming every day, trying to get the shots, moving to different locations. Once that's done, you go into an editing process, which is another two or three or maybe many more months, where you get all of the footage back and you start cutting the scenes together, trying to get the story to come alive. You put pieces of music to it as that comes in from the composer, or you re-record some sound where it was too windy that day on set and you couldn't understand the actor's dialogue. So you have to get them back in the studio to lip-synch over their action on film.

It's very detailed work. Many, many sounds often have to be replaced. We might have to come up with a perfect horse sound, if we didn't get it that day on the set. Maybe we didn't have a microphone on the horse, because we had a microphone on Keisha [Castle-Hughes]... There are all of these different layers to it, and after you've worked through them all, then finally, hopefully, you get your movie done.

So you've got to be really good at multitasking to be a director.

Oh, completely. A good example: I would be riding around in the back of a four-wheel drive out in the desert in Morocco, looking at locations. At the same time, I would have a jack plugged into the vehicle's cigarette lighter so my computer could be powered up and I could be working on the script. And I'd have one of those wireless cards plugged in so I could be emailing my thoughts on the script back to Mike Rich. It's just wild! (Laughs.)

I understand you had an accelerated schedule on this one, as well.

I had nine months and two weeks. That's why I was definitely multitasking.

How do you view that side of the work? Is it something to dread, or do you take it in stride?

Very up and down. (Laughs.) Some days you feel like things are just going so well, and then the next day nothing works out and it feels like a big disaster. It's very much a rollercoaster. Which is kind of cool, I guess. It's just like life.

So looking back, now that it's all done, what are you most pleased with about this project?

I really loved meeting all of these actors from around the world, and finding each person had a connection to the story. Even if it wasn't their religion. Filming in a Muslim country, it made me realize that there are more similarities between most religions than differences. People were moved by the emotional elements of the story, by the spirituality of the story, by the messages and the themes, regardless of their religion. That was very inspiring to me.

I also felt like the actors really gave their hearts and souls to the project. They worked really hard to get inside the skin of Mary and Joseph and help you feel what it could have been like to be a real person going through this noble, difficult experience.

We've never seen this perspective of the nativity on film before -- that very human aspect of Mary and Joseph and what they went through.

I went to sunday school and church my whole life, and I always assumed that Mary and Joseph were happy and everything was great. They had these visions and everybody applauded and brought them gifts.


(Laughs.) But if you study the culture at the time, or even if you just study the book of Matthew -- you'll read a line that says Joseph was planning to divorce Mary, privately. That one sentence has a lot of anguish in it. This is a woman he loved. He was a strictly religious man, and for him to decide he might need to divorce her because she came home pregnant... He knows he's not the father. That's a huge deal, even now, in our time. There's a very visceral reaction to seeing the person you love pregnant with someone else's child. How do you struggle with that moral dilemma? How do you trust her? How do you believe her? Those moments were what really drew me in to the idea of making this film and making the story come alive for people.

It's interesting to see the story put in the proper historical and cultural context. I'm not sure that's something we've ever delved into before, this deeply.

I was fascinated by all of that. These people were living hand-to-mouth, planting seeds, saving every bit of grain they had. On top of that, Herod came in and taxed them, taking half of what they had. Living under that kind of pressure, with those economic realities, that kind of connection to the land where you knew where your food came from... It's so foreign to us now.

What was the premier at the Vatican like for you?

A very surreal experience. (Laughs.) I thought they must have been exaggerating when they said there were going to be seven thousand people there, but you walk into this space, there were seven thousand people there. It was several rows of people in their beautiful black robes and cardinal's hats, and of course I was about to faint!


(Laughs.) It was a "what am I doing here?!" moment. So they're watching the movie, and I'm getting so nervous wondering what everybody is going to think. "What if this detail isn't right, or what if that scene doesn't look good?" But then at the moment the baby was born, it started to rain outside. I heard rain pattering on the roof. I said to the person next to me, "It's raining." And they said, "No, that's applause." It came from the back of the theater along this kind of curved roof, and it traveled over the whole audience. People just burst into applause when Jesus was born. It was really neat.

Then people stood up and tried to take photographs of the moment on the screen when Jesus was born.


It was amazing!

If it wasn't at the Vatican, they'd get arrested for that sort of thing.

I know! Usually you get patted-down before you go into a premier, but I guess they didn't worry about the nuns taking pictures. But really, it was an amazing, beautiful experience. And the best thing about it is that the whole thing was done as a benefit for this school in Israel that's in a war-torn area. The school will help kids from all different races and faiths -- Muslims, Jews, and Christians. I love that.

So what's next for you?

Working on The Nativity has reinforced in my mind what I was planning to do before. It's a movie about the environment. As we tried to find locations that hadn't changed in two thousand years, we found that that's pretty difficult in this world, because we haven't taken very good care of it. Even in the middle of the desert in Morocco, there would be trash heaps. Plastic bags would blow at you. It was crazy the things that we saw, just scouting for locations.

So that's what I'm working on next. It's called The Monkey Wrench Gang, and it's based on a novel about four people in the Southwest, who were idealists in the seventies, trying to save the land around the Grand Canyon. It's a comedy. It's going to be really fun.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

"Nazareth Village" used as inspiration in "Nativity"

Nazarenes live and act as Jesus did
POSTED: 4:21 p.m. EST, December 21, 2006
By Michael McKinley and David Gibson

NAZARETH VILLAGE, Israel (CNN) -- Two thousand years after Jesus walked the hills of the Galilee, a group of American and Israeli scholars have created Nazareth Village, the kind of first-century Hebrew town where Jesus grew up, in the very city where he was raised.

That makes Nazareth Village a treasure not only to archaeologists and Christian pilgrims, but also to filmmakers.

Because in spite of the religious significance and nostalgia surrounding the biblical town of Nazareth, today's sprawling, modern-day version of the city would have been unrecognizable to Jesus.

Then, a decade ago Dr. Stephen Pfann, president of the University of the Holy Land, spotted remnants of an ancient wine press while visiting nearby Nazareth Hospital.

Encouraged by the hospital administration, Pfann worked with fellow biblical scholars, including his wife, Claire -- one of the on-camera experts in the CNN Presents documentary "After Jesus" -- to painstakingly rebuild this modern-day archaeological marvel on a 20-acre patch of hillside in the midst of a bustling city of 70,000 people -- Muslim, Jewish and Christian.

Nazareth Village is no dry museum piece or shallow tourist trap, but a working village that recreates a Jewish community at the time of the first century.

Today, Nazarene men, women and children from the surrounding neighborhood dress in authentic first-century costumes to plow fields, bake bread and press olives.

They also are rebuilding the village using the ancient materials and methods that Jesus and his family would have used. There are houses, a carpenter's shop, a synagogue and a stable.

Nazareth Village is not only a popular destination for schools and tourists, but it is also a key location for television and film productions that deal with Jesus and his time.

Recently, re-enactors from Nazareth Village were taken to a southern Italian town to appear in the recent Christmas film, "The Nativity," which tells in historical detail the story of the birth of Jesus.

Much of that historical precision was provided by the folks from Nazareth Village.

Indeed, the town works with producers to give us what we need by way of events and characters to tell our Jesus stories.

When we were filming segments for "After Jesus," the re-enactors helped us cast our scenes.

One tour guide had played the Apostle Peter before, and slid into his role with genial ease; another played the mercurial Apostle Paul, and worked with us to reveal the character of this complex man, who is often seen as second only to Jesus in the foundation of Christianity.

And then there were the children, full of energy and fun, but mindful of their elders and their role in this accomplishment.

It is one that is all the more extraordinary given the troubles brought upon Nazareth by the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Nazareth is in the heart of the Galilee, the northern province of Israel, just as in biblical times.

And today, just as then, it is often caught up in the violence that afflicts the area.

Most recently, rockets from Hezbollah militias, situated just a few miles to the north across the border in Lebanon, struck the city during the conflict with Israel.

While Nazareth Village wasn't directly hit, the conflict recalled the daily violence of the Roman occupation during the time of Jesus and his contemporaries.

For today's Nazarenes, any outbreak of violence generally leads to a drastic drop-off in tourism, mainly by Christian pilgrims from North America.

The industry provides an economic lifeline for the poor city and especially for Nazareth Village, which scrapes by largely on donations.

More than ever, the message of peace at the heart of Christianity is something embraced by both the "citizens" of the village and those who do visit.

The village is keen to show how the rhythm of rural life in this rocky, hilly country would have influenced Jesus, a carpenter now called the Prince of Peace.

And while our show deals with how the teachings of this humble Galilean became a global religion after he died, Nazareth Village is a powerful reminder of how he lived.

"Nativity's" poor showing a "major setback"

Seen as bad news for people of faith who want more values-based, family fare
Posted: December 21, 2006
1:00 a.m. Eastern
© 2006

The poor showing of "The Nativity Story" this Christmas season is bad news for people of faith who hope Hollywood will make more feature films their families can enjoy, according to Christian movie reviewer Ted Baehr.

"It's a very serious setback," said Baehr, founder and publisher of Movieguide and chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission.

The disappointing performance is all the more significant, Baehr told WND, because, unlike blockbusters "The Passion of the Christ" and "The Chronicles of Narnia," "Nativity" was produced by a major studio, New Line Cinema.

Baehr explained Hollywood takes about a dozen years to make a movie, so making changes in a good direction is like "turning the Titanic around."

"If one or two movies do well, the ship will continue on a positive course, otherwise it will turn back to whatever makes money," he said.

Right now, Baehr noted, the easy money is made on "extremely bigoted, anti-Christian movies" such as "Borat" and "Jackass 2."

Baehr said the performance of "Nativity" is especially disappointing because it's an exceptionally good film that adheres closely to the Bible.

"It's very entertaining, very authentic and has captured all ranges of the church, from James Dobson to Charles Colson to the Vatican," he said. "It should be doing great business."

But as of Tuesday, "Nativity," with a production budget of $35 million, has an estimated gross box office of just $24.6 million in the U.S. since opening Dec. 1. Another "values" film, Walden Media's "Charlotte's Web," finished a distant third in its opening this past weekend, grossing $11.6 million, while the leader, "The Pursuit of Happyness," grossed $26.5 million. "Nativity finished ninth over the weekend, at just under $4.7 million.

Getting the word out

Baehr believes a major problem for "Nativity" was that marketers didn't get the word out early to their vital partner, the churches.

Mel Gibson, he pointed out, was promoting "Passion" in churches nine months before its release. With "Narnia," study guides were distributed to nearly every church – an effort that requires marketers to be "one year ahead of the game." "Passion," released in 2004, had a worldwide box office of $604 million.

In the end, the estimated 149 million Americans who regularly attend church services need to show up in order for movies such as "The Nativity Story" to be successful, Baehr said.

"The most powerful person in Hollywood is not a Michael Eisner," Baehr said. "It's the person who goes to the movie and votes at the box office."

Baehr said "Nativity" has one of the best scripts ever for a biblical story.

"What makes a movie compelling is a sense of jeopardy, and that sense of jeopardy is present throughout this movie," he said in a WND interview last month. "The dialogue, the plot development, the turning points are refreshingly dramatic, so good in fact that they will elicit tears at certain points."

Oscar Isaac plays Joseph and Keisha Castle-Hughes is Mary in the movie, which opens with the prophecy in Jeremiah 23:5-6: "'The days are coming,'" declares the Lord, 'when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.'"

Friday, December 08, 2006

Whither the "Nativity" Crowd?

The Nativity Story came into theaters worldwide last weekend in much the same way that Christ himself came into the world—quietly, without much fanfare, and with only a small crowd witnessing the event.

The film, a $35 million project from New Line Cinema, finished just fourth at the box office with a paltry $7.8 million in ticket sales. A New Line spokesman said a huge snowstorm across the heartland kept some of the crowds away from the cineplex, but they seemed to be able to get out to see Happy Feet, Casino Royale, and Déjà Vu, all of which finished ahead of Nativity.

I was a bit disappointed—and a little embarrassed; more on that in a moment—by the turnout. I think The Nativity Story is a beautiful film about the birth of our Savior, and I think it'll be a Christmas classic in home DVD libraries for years to come. Reviews have been mixed; we gave it three (out of four) stars, and other reviewers are all over the map—everything from high praise to outright slams.

I might disagree with critics who aren't impressed with the film, but I wouldn't call their opinions "outrageous, disingenuous lies," as one outspoken pundit recently bellowed. Outrageous lies? Because they didn't like the movie? My goodness. Aren't people entitled to their opinions without being called liars?

Of course they are; I certainly am, and I don't mind sharing mine—including some opinions that may ruffle a few feathers. Like this one:

With the low turnout for The Nativity Story, compared to the relatively high turnout for other recent Christian movies like Facing the Giants and One Night with the King, I'm afraid Christian moviegoers are sending a message to Hollywood that isn't very pretty:

"We want more lame movies about our faith!"

The major studios are asking, "What films make money, and which ones don't?" If gory slasher flicks make money, they'll make gory slasher flicks. If gratuitous violence, steamy sex and raunchy humor sells, they'll make more movies with gratuitous violence, steamy sex and raunchy humor.

And now they must be thinking something like this: If Christians will settle for mediocre—or worse—films of faith, especially if they're made on a shoestring budget, then we'll deliver the goods! (Here's hoping that won't happen with The Weinstein Company, which just announced its own Christian film division.)

The Passion of The Christ earned a whopping $83.8 million in its first weekend. New Line Cinema didn't expect that kind of windfall, but they certainly hoped for a better debut for Nativity, which cost $35 million to make. (The Passion cost $30 million.)

But forget the comparisons to the incomparable Passion. Compared to the fast start of Facing the Giants and One Night with the King, Nativity was practically stuck at the starting gate on opening weekend.Nativity opened in a whopping 3,183 theaters, averaging $2,466 per theater. Giants opened in just 441 theaters, but averaged $3,046 per theater, while King, which opened in 909 theaters, averaged $4,533.

Had Giants opened in 3,183 theaters like Nativity, it would have earned $9.7 million on opening weekend—$2 million more than Nativity. Similarly, King would have earned $14.4 million—almost twice Nativity's first-weekend take.

While it's nice to see any Christian film successful at the box office, I'm concerned that Hollywood might be getting this message (whether Christian moviegoers are intending to send it or not): Cheaply made, cheesy films with poor acting and storytelling (Giants) and a bit more expensive but not much better movies (King) will satisfy the Christian audience. And well-made, artistic, thoughtful movies like The Nativity Story just aren't worth the bang for buck; why should a studio lose money on a movie?

At least that's the message after opening weekend for The Nativity Story. But there are still a few weeks left till Christmas. Perhaps Nativity will pick up some momentum and gain some "legs" in the weeks ahead, and Hollywood will get the message that making excellent Christian movies is money well spent. It'll never come near The Passion's worldwide take of more than $600 million, but here's one observer who hopes that Nativity picks up enough financial steam in the next few weeks that Hollywood gets the right message.

Speaking of The Passion, Mel Gibson is back in the news, not for drunken anti-Semitic remarks, thank goodness, but back in the director's chair with Apocalypto, his first film since Passion. Some say it's the most violent movie they've ever seen; our reviewer, Peter T. Chattaway, describes Gibson as "a sadist who rubs our faces in cinematic violence," but finds enough worthwhile material to give it 2½ stars.Two more new reviews this week: Blood Diamond, an action-packed drama starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a mercenary who trades diamonds for weapons in Sierra Leone's civil war, and The Holiday, a Kate Winslet/Camerin Diaz/Jude Law/Jack Black treat that our reviewer says is one of the better romantic comedies out of Hollywood in quite a while.

Also, you'll soon be reaching for It's a Wonderful Life, if you haven't already. But how much do you know about its director, Frank Capra? Learn more about him in our latest edition of Filmmakers of Faith, as writer Frank Smith explores the famed director's history.

Finally, who will direct The Hobbit? Will it be Peter Jackson, who directed the Lord of the Rings trilogy? Or someone else? Get the scoop in Reel News.

See you at the movies,

Mark Moring
Online Managing Editor/Music & Film

"Nativity" Bible Studies

Christianity Today has created two Bible studies just for "Nativity," a family guide and a regular guide. They are provided as a Word file and can be purchased for $5.95 each. They cover such topics including the following:

Discussion Guide

• Movie Summary

• Discussing the Scenes
—Belief vs. Unbelief (Luke 1:5–22, 26–45)
—The Journey of Faith (Psalm 56:3–4; 121:1–8; Proverbs 14:12, 31; 19:21; Hebrews 11:1)
—God’s Faithfulness (1 Kings 19:1–13; Luke 1:46–55)

• As the Credits Roll

Even though the studies must be purchased to download, they give permission for up to 1000 copies to be made for distribution in churches.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Queen Spoo's Review

“The Nativity Story” begins with an opening reminiscent of a combination of “The Passion of the Christ” and “Star Wars,” with the text scrolling across the night sky, informing the viewer of the time and place in which the story begins, along with a prophetic Messianic Scripture of Jeremiah 23:5-6:

5 "The days are coming," declares the LORD,
"when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
and do what is just and right in the land.
6 In his days Judah will be saved
and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called:
The LORD Our Righteousness.
Interestingly, it treats the whole story leading up to the Nativity as a large flashback, happening a year earlier than the opening to Herod’s massacre of the infants in Bethlehem. As it opens with Zechariah’s turn to burn the incense in the Temple, as his wife, Elizabeth, waits outside, the treatment of that scene worked well, showing with accuracy the priestly duties and the Temple architecture. The presentation of Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah only by the moving of the smoke as he spoke was a creative approach, even though we do actually see Gabriel in bodily form later in the movie.

As we see the village of Nazareth and the everyday life of Mary and her family, the rusticness and poverty is well-conveyed. She helps in the fields, makes and sells cheese with her family, and assists neighbors with tasks. Despite the poor circumstances, largely due to the overtaxing and occupation by the Romans, it appears that the villagers get along and make as much of their community together as possible. However, this tightknit community also is quite judgmental—as was typical of Jewish society—later on when Mary comes back pregnant from her visit with Elizabeth. Before all of this, when Mary is betrothed to Joseph—likely because he is attracted to her, and also because her father is financially unstable—we meet a very winsome man as portrayed by Oscar Isaac. We see Joseph as nervous around the girl he’s in love with, unsure of how to deal with her walking out of the house after she is betrothed. We also get glimpses of the type of man Joseph is, honorable and considerate, when he recovers Mary’s father’s donkey that the Romans took for tax payment. However, Mary’s response, as portrayed by Castle-Hughes, I found to be less than inspiring—her expression hardly seemed grateful, and she nearly inaudibly thanked Joseph as she walks off with the donkey.

The visitation by Gabriel to Mary occurs in broad daylight while she is resting in the groves from working. Initially, she senses something is different because of the wind—reminiscent of the story recurring in the Jewish scripture-telling from I Kings 19:11-12 that God was not in the wind (or the earthquake or the fire), but in the still small voice. His appearance to her appears both human and angelic at the same time, as we see him here in bodily form, though transparent near the ground. After this appearance, Mary decided to visit Elizabeth to see if what Gabriel said was true about her miraculous pregnancy, and going with her parents’ reluctant permission, she finds out it is indeed true. The “girl time” they shared was a good segment of the film, sharing their miraculous pregnancies and helping confirm to Mary that her pregnancy was indeed from God and she wasn’t just dreaming things. Even Elizabeth’s childbirth scene brought some reality to the situation, as Mary looked on with a little dismay that this was something she would be looking forward to.

The film provides an insightful look into what Mary would have faced with her “illegitimate” pregnancy with her family and her neighbors. Joseph shows well-deserved concern, yet shows mercy in his decision not to accuse her so that she won’t be tried and possibly stoned. One of the best scenes of the movie was when Joseph is dreaming about the situation with Mary’s pregnancy, seeing the crowd gathering to stone her, and as he is handed a stone and he nearly throws it at her, Gabriel steps in the way and delivers his message to Joseph to take Mary as his wife and confirms that her child was miraculously conceived.

As they have to leave to Bethlehem for the census, we see some beautiful and rugged landscape, giving the viewers some idea of the arduous journey it would have taken to get there. Again, we see some of the traditional Jewish customs, such as Joseph’s blessing the bread in Hebrew. Furthermore, the good-naturedness of Joseph continues to be shown, particularly when he feeds their donkey some of his bread so that it won’t become too weak for the traveling. Interestingly, as they are walking through Jerusalem on the way on to Bethlehem, as they are walking through the outer courts of the Temple and get sacrificial birds shoved at them for purchase, Joseph makes a striking comment echoing Jesus’ later, saying “I thought this was supposed to be a holy place.”

They finally arrive in Bethlehem, where there is no room as Mary goes into labor. They find an animal cave/stable and Joseph has to deliver Jesus on his own. As they try to get comfortable with the new Baby, shepherds appear from nowhere—including an old one they had previously met on the road—soon followed by the Magi, as Joseph and Mary look on in amazement. Here again, Joseph appears to be mystified, but Mary just looks on without much expression, rather than appearing that she is “pondering all these things and treasured them up in her heart.” Perhaps she is too exhausted from traveling and giving birth.

The film then comes full circle, as Herod gives the order to kill all boys under 2, while Joseph simultaneously gets a message in another dream to hurry and get out of town towards Egypt, narrowly missing the soldiers’ arrival. It ends by showing the family arriving at the pyramids of Egypt, awaiting the next saga to chronicle the next stage in Jesus’ life.

Oscar Isaac turns in a solid performance all around, showing a range of emotions and giving depth to the much-ignored character of Joseph. Keisha Castle-Hughes, on the other hand, provides a disappointing performance, especially after the high standards she performed as the lead Paikea in “Whale Rider.” She may have been trying to portray Mary as serious or pious, but she largely came across as unemotional and bored. Shaun Toub and Hiam Abbass (who actually was born in Nazareth—how cool!) played believable parents to Mary. Shohreh Aghdashloo portrayed a wonderful image of Elizabeth, a kind, compassionate, and righteous woman who helped Mary through her difficult predicament. Ciaran Hinds pulled off a decent balance for the mentally unstable and paranoid King Herod (the Great), showing his vanity, arrogance, and paranoia that his throne would be toppled, even by members of his own family. The Magi were a nice counter to the rest of the film, providing some mild comedy, but without being over the top or being unrealistic. Gaspar’s skepticism was an interesting twist, and made his belief at the end all the more meaningful.

The movie attempts to stay reverent and authentic at the same time. Jewish customs are represented accurately and respectfully, even small ones. One nice touch was the inclusion of a dove whenever an angel departed or the presence of God was indicated, particularly as one flew over Mary after she tells Gabriel that she would accept God’s plan for her to carry Jesus as a particularly representational moment of the Holy Spirit’s presence coming over her as it flew by. Even the use of the cave—rather than a wood stable—showed the greater degree of accuracy than most Christmas films. Theologically, the story was compressed, particularly with the arrival of the Magi with the shepherds, to allow for time as well as the traditional images of the Nativity often seen in crèches. The cinematography was spectacular, keeping it soft and earthy, while maintaining the moments of the divine when needed. The only thing that seemed incongruent was the nitty-grittiness of the whole film until the end for the actual Nativity scene, where it suddenly becomes the picturesque Christmas card. The imagery is beautifully shot, but it seems to insert the quintessential Nativity scene—which I suppose is appropriate for a movie called “The Nativity Story”—perhaps to represent this holy moment differently around the bookends of more realistic renditions of their everyday life.

Grade: B+

"Nativity" elicits different responses

Nativity Story Delights Some, Disappoints Others
Christian film critics have mixed feelings about Catherine Hardwicke's The Nativity Story.
by Jeffrey Overstreet posted 12/07/2006

For Christians, Christmas is a time to think about Chapter One of the Greatest Story Ever Told. But at the movies, the holiday is usually celebrated with forgettable, frivolous features like the latest episode in the Santa Clause series and heavy-hitting, Oscar-contending dramas like Babel and the upcoming Dreamgirls.

This year, however, thanks to New Line Cinema, director Catherine Hardwicke, and screenwriter Mike Rich, The Nativity Story is surprising holiday moviegoers with a substantial Christmas message. The film takes its subject seriously, adhering closely to the details of the scriptural text and with a remarkable attention to period detail. The film feels authentic in its dusty, simple design, and in the complexion of its cast.

And the biggest surprise of all? This version of The Nativity Story brings the character of Joseph to life. Through a nuanced performance by Oscar Isaac, we're blessed with a detailed portrait of a virtuous man stepping up to accept enormous responsibility. We see his pride shaken as his fiancée becomes pregnant by a mystery. We see him fearful and dismayed as the community becomes suspicious. We feel his angst as he wonders if he can teach the Son of God anything. And then we sense his fears as he travels with Mary back to his crowded hometown where nobody is willing to help them, and they end up in a stable.

But The Nativity Story is also surprising some Christian critics by just how far short it falls from what it might have been.

I was excited to see a chapter of Christ's story shared without apology or dismaying distortions, and yet I've rarely encountered a version of the story that failed to inspire wonder, excitement, and awe the way this one fails. It all seems so dutiful and responsible and safe that the film never really came to life, never lit up with passion. Despite the attention to detail, almost every scene in The Nativity Story feels rushed. We might have had scenes, but instead we have hurried exchanges. Hardwicke seems to have forgotten that the big screen can be a canvas for visual poetry, for inspiring awe with light and color. She seems to merely document what the actors are doing, without any interest in metaphor or beauty.

When Mike Rich's screenplay shifts from the Bible's language to his own embellishments are abrupt and distracting. Events that should feel momentous and thought-provoking—like the restoration of Zechariah's speech, Elizabeth's rejoicing with Mary, Gabriel's announcement, and the central nativity event in the stable—all arrive and pass so quickly, we hardly have a chance to apprehend the gravity of what is happening.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary. The actress, so alive and engaging in Whale Rider, seems trapped in two or three facial expressions here, and her line readings are flat and automatic. When Gabriel arrives, her face fails to communicate anything like fear or fascination. Only Oscar Isaac, as Joseph, manages to communicate more than the screenplay gives him to say. Only he gains a powerful hold on our sympathies. Why these three wise men are called "wise" is anybody's guess. And when we arrive at the nativity itself, it looks far too much like a Hallmark Christmas card; the stable seems to be missing a roof, allowing the Christmas star to spotlight the Christ child.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

Here's what other Christian press film critics are saying:

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says the movie's "real hero" is Joseph, who "may be the most attractive embodiment of goodness and self-giving devotion that we have seen in a movie since Sean Astin played Sam in The Lord of the Rings."

He also adds that there's "a tension of sorts in Mike Rich's screenplay, which oscillates between the need to be faithful to the biblical text, on the one hand, and the freedom to create dramatically compelling characters and scenes, on the other. While Rich trims out some of the dialogue that appears in the Bible, the parts that he keeps are presented almost exactly as written, yet these sections of the film—especially the Annunciation and the restoration of speech to Zechariah—feel rushed and anticlimactic, and are never quite woven into the rest of the drama."

He concludes, "For all the talk of 'realism' and 'authenticity' that has surrounded this film, it is still very much a family-friendly Christmas pageant, a Christmas crèche brought to theatrical life."

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) is impressed with scenes that develop "the human dimension of what the terse biblical narratives merely imply … . The tender relationship between young Mary and the older Elizabeth … is touchingly drawn, and the public shame and scandal faced by Mary returning to Nazareth, and by Joseph if he stands by her, is vividly portrayed. … Further enhancing the realism is doubtless the most non-Caucasian cast in Hollywood Bible movie history."

Greydanus is especially impressed with Oscar Isaac's performance as Joseph, saying his "sensitive, compelling performance gives depth and humanity to the relatively obscure figure St. Matthew describes simply as 'a righteous man.'" He says the film's faults "tend to be of omission rather than commission," but predicts it will be a family favorite for years to come.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says "Hollywood finally gets it right with The Nativity Story. It's an] artful, reverent and deeply affecting retelling. … The film's hopeful message should resonate beyond Christian audiences to a world still groaning for peace and good will."

Frederica Matthewes-Green (, originally at Beliefnet), says, "If you thought Hollywood was incapable of approaching Christians without a cattle prod, you'll be shocked at how circumspect this movie is. … There is nothing in this film to offend devout Christians (parents note, however, a PG rating for some glimpses of crucifixion)—but solemnity rolls through it all like molasses."

Matthewes-Green is especially disappointed in Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary. "[S]he just seems disengaged. Some astounding and even terrifying things are happening to Mary, but Castle-Hughes looks like her mind is somewhere else." But she has higher praise for Oscar Isaac as Joseph and Terry Russof as an insightful shepherd.

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says, "Straightforward. That's perhaps the best word to describe The Nativity Story. Sweet and respectful work, too. But never grand or ambitious, as fans of biblical epics might wish for. A few too many British-leaning accents, a few too few visual effects and a script that serves its purpose well but doesn't burst into color onscreen all conspire to push the film into that 'just another Bible movie' category. … They almost succeed. But not quite."

Matt Page (Bible Films), calling the film "more good than bad," says, "[D]espite its uniqueness, it can't quite decide what kind of bible film it wants to be. The title suggests a mythic retelling, perhaps aimed at the family, yet the early scenes have a gritty, realistic feel to them. Later on though the film morphs into a sort of road movie. … Then it changes gear yet again once the holy couple reaches Bethlehem. The last remaining vestiges of realism are swiftly ditched and out comes a touch of the Christmas magic. … It's not that there is anything particularly wrong with any of these different styles; it just leads to a very uneven film."

Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) says it's "a movie with everything:drama, action, romance, history, and miracles—a sure bet to edge out the shallow, same old 'pretend-Christmas' offerings."

Michael Brunk (Past the Popcorn) says, "[I]t's not actually a bad movie. It's just not as good as it could have, or perhaps should have, been."

Sister Rose Pacatte, F.S.P. (St. Anthony Messenger) says Mike Rich's script "reaches inside the minds and hearts of the characters and makes them real for us. The Magi provide some comic relief. The story of Jesus' birth is layered with meaning so that the youngest child to the wisest of adults can experience Christmas anew. … This film is certain to be a classic for all Christians, even though the nativity scene … looks as if it was lifted off a Christmas card. A little more subtlety would have been my preference."

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) says, "[T]he movie's best scenes involve [Mary] and Joseph trying to make sense of their circumstances." He also raves about Isaac's performance as Joseph: "Isaac owns the movie. Saying very little, the Juilliard graduate brilliantly expresses what must surely have been Joseph's doubt, anger and fear. [He] provides Christ-like traits before, during and after the film's manger climax."

Mainstream critics
are turning in mixed reviews. At Rotten Tomatoes, an average of 107 reviews comes up with a "rotten" rating of 41 percent (anything less than 60 percent is deemed rotten). But the "Cream of the Crop" reviews—notable critics from North America's top media outlets—are at 58 percent, just shy of the "fresh" rating.

A.O. Scott of The New York Times says the film "sticks to the familiar details of the narrative and dramatizes them with sincerity and good taste. There are no flights of actorly or cinematic bravura—though all of the performances are credible, and some better than that—and very few big, showy, epic gestures. Rather than trying to reinterpret or modernize a well-known, cherished story, the filmmakers have rendered it with a quiet, unassuming professionalism."

But Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly says, "The movie industry is eager to beckon and serve Christian viewers, yet as long as it thinks of those viewers as another market slice, a demo, it may end up pandering to them with cautious and stultifying reverence. The Nativity Story is a film of tame picture-book sincerity, but that's not the same thing as devotion. The movie is too tepid to feel, or see, the light."

Monday, December 04, 2006

Movieguide's Ted Baehr Reviews "Nativity"

THE NATIVITY STORY is one of those very rare movies that brings the Gospel alive in a compelling, captivating, entertaining, and inspiring manner that shatters expectations. It is a sacred movie and a divine revelation in the best sense of these words. It is a human story with depth and breadth and height and all the right elements to capture the audience.

The movie opens with Jeremiah 23:5-6: "'The days are coming,'" declares the LORD, 'when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness.'" The rest of the movie references and quotes Scripture throughout.

The intensely paranoid King Herod sends out the troops to kill all the innocents in Bethlehem and stop the prophecy that there will be born a King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Herod is intensely superstitious and played brilliantly. Thus, this movie starts, as it should, with a bang. It then flashes back to a year earlier in the town of Nazareth, showing a brief moment of tranquility in the life of Mary and Joseph.

Suddenly, the Roman troops are upon the village demanding tribute for Caesar. Mary's father loses part of his land and his donkey. Joseph the carpenter buys the donkey back from the greedy soldier and gives it back to the father, asking for Mary's hand in marriage. Mary protests a little, but she is betrothed and must spend a year before they consummate the marriage.

Soon, an angel of God comes to Mary to tell her that she is with God's child, born by the Holy Spirit. She goes to see her cousin Elizabeth, who in her older age is also with child. (A previous scene shows Elizabeth’s husband, the priest Zechariah, entering the temple and being struck mute when he doubts the word of the angel that Elizabeth had become pregnant.) When Mary returns to Nazareth, it is clear that Mary is pregnant. Joseph is devastated but decides to continue with the marriage after an angel appears to him in a dream. At the same time, the magi in Babylon are preparing to follow a unique astrological sign, which forms a brief new star, to find the King of Kings.

Joseph and Mary have to journey to Bethlehem to register for the Roman census, and the prophecies of God are fulfilled.

THE NATIVITY STORY has one of the best scripts ever for a biblical story. What makes a movie compelling is a sense of jeopardy, and that sense of jeopardy is present throughout this movie. The dialogue, the plot development, the turning points are refreshingly dramatic, so good in fact that they will elicit tears at certain points. THE NATIVITY STORY is compelling drama that carefully avoids gruesome, graphic violence. Even the slaughtering of the ox at the temple does not show the blade entering the animal, yet it causes the audience to wince.

Catherine Hardwicke's direction is superb. Joseph and Mary are very human and very Jewish and very much in love. Each character has a terrific character arc. Probably the best part of the movie is the costuming and the settings. Having spent some time in Israel researching other movies, I can attest to the authenticity of even the smallest details of life in Israel in the first century. The crucifixions, the agriculture, the ephods, everything is done exquisitely. There is one moment where Mary has an attitude, but it is very brief and natural. A later statement, however, declares that Mary is always trustworthy, that she keeps her promises and therefore she is honored by God. Her complexities add depth to her character and make the story of Mary and Joseph more profound.

THE NATIVITY STORY is a nearly perfect movie. It should be a movie that every Christian would want to see. It is certainly a movie that every Non-Christian should see. It testifies in every way to Jesus the Messiah and is clearly and consciously evangelistic. Such statements that this baby is the “greatest King” and “God made flesh,” that the gold is for the King of the world, that the frankincense is for the greatest priest of all, and that the myrrh is to honor the sacrifice, and many, many more pointedly proclaim the story of the Christ and the great news that there is salvation in none other.

Use Movieguide's Secular Teacher's Guide or Christian Teacher's Guide.

Find the Movieguide Faith Guide here and download free "Nativity" sermons here.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

ScoreNotes interviews Mychael Danna (composer)

Here, interviews Mychael Danna, the composer of "Nativity." Much of what he says echoes my interview with him, but he elaborates on the scoring process for the movie. Listen to the intriguing interview below:

"Nativity" debuts at 4th opening weekend

Dancing penguin beats up 007 at the box office
POSTED: 5:18 p.m. EST, December 3, 2006

LOS ANGELES, California (AP) -- A dancing penguin and the world's deadliest spy have settled in for a long stay at the top of the box office. [...]

A weak crop of newcomers were unable to bump off the holdovers. Despite the holiday season, movie-goers generally were not in the mood for New Line's "The Nativity Story," a tale of Christ's humble birth that debuted modestly with $8 million to come at No. 4.

Starring Keisha Castle-Hughes as the Virgin Mary, "The Nativity Story" received mixed reviews, with many critics finding it a skillfully crafted but tame and unimaginative retelling of the first Christmas.

Snow in the Midwest kept many movie-goers at home, undermining the film's opening, said David Tuckerman, New Line's head of distribution.

"The storms in the middle of the country couldn't have hurt us more," Tuckerman said. "It's a movie made for the heartland, and it killed us in the heartland."

Saturday, December 02, 2006

"Nativity" TV commercials

Christianity Today Reviews "Nativity"

The Nativity Story
Review by Peter T. Chattaway posted 12/01/06

The Passion of The Christ was an independent movie, paid for entirely out of Mel Gibson's pocket. The Prince of Egypt was an animated film that emphasized the common ground between Jews, Christians and Muslims. The Last Temptation of Christ was a low-budget art-house flick based on a heretical novel.

You would have to go back at least as far as King David, the mid-1980s box-office flop starring Richard Gere, to find another live-action movie produced by a major Hollywood studio and based directly on the Bible. And you would have to go back even further—to the bathrobe epics of the 1960s, at least—to find a mainstream biblical movie that was as blatantly Christian as The Nativity Story.

The film begins by quoting a prophecy, from the Book of Jeremiah, that is said to be troubling King Herod the Great (Ciarán Hinds). We then see Herod and his son Antipas (Alessandro Giuggioli) as they preside over the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. By this point, Mychael Danna's score has invoked the medieval hymn "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," and scenes like these lay out the messianic hope by reminding us that Israel was indeed a "captive" in need of "ransoming."

The movie then jumps back a year and then some to the beginning of the story, as the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) appears to the priest Zechariah (Stanley Townsend) to tell him that his wife Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo) will have a son despite being well past the age of childbearing. Actually, Gabriel does not "appear" to Zechariah, as such; in one of the film's several minor deviations from the Bible, Gabriel reveals only his voice to Zechariah—although, in a nifty special effect, the angel's breath does seem to part the smoke that rises from the altar.

After this, we meet Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a young girl who likes to play and laugh with her friends, but, like the teens of today, she has to cope with oh-so-serious parents—Joaquim (Shaun Toub) and Anna (Hiam Abbass, who really was born in Nazareth!)—who interrupt her fun to remind her to do her chores. (The film imagines that the ancestors of Christ made and sold cheese, which kind of gives a new spin to that old Monty Python line, "Blessed are the cheesemakers!")

Here is where the tension between the film's ancient and modern sensibilities is at its most obvious. Director Catherine Hardwicke spent years as a production designer before she got behind the camera, and her quest for authenticity is all over The Nativity Story's set design, especially when she throws in brief educational cutaway shots of peasants treading grapes or milking goats. But the film also gives Mary and her parents a taste of the intergenerational friction that was a major theme in Hardwicke's previous directorial efforts, Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown—and at times, the interactions within Mary's family feel a tad anachronistic.

There is also a tension of sorts in Mike Rich's screenplay, which oscillates between the need to be faithful to the biblical text, on the one hand, and the freedom to create dramatically compelling characters and scenes, on the other. While Rich trims out some of the dialogue that appears in the Bible, the parts that he keeps are presented almost exactly as written, yet these sections of the film—especially the Annunciation and the restoration of speech to Zechariah—feel rushed and anticlimactic, and are never quite woven into the rest of the drama. Compare the first scene between Mary and Elizabeth, which is straight out of the Gospel of Luke (minus the Magnificat), with their later conversations; it's a little like watching Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, in which the heroes use modern English until they wander into a scene from Hamlet and start talking all Shakespearean.

Of course, there isn't all that much information about the Nativity in the Bible to begin with, so the filmmakers have plenty of room in which to create a thematic and dramatic arc for their story—and many of their ideas are quite interesting.

As Mary, Castle-Hughes is a bit of a blank, but there is still something compelling about her portrait of a child who finds herself thrust into a supremely adult role, first when her parents push her into an arranged marriage with Joseph (Oscar Isaac), and then when Gabriel tells her that she will bear the Son of God. The film even brings certain aspects of Terrence Malick's The New World to mind, as Mary expresses her thoughts in voice-over and comes to appreciate her husband's love for her.

But the real hero of this movie is Joseph, who, as played by Isaac, may be the most attractive embodiment of goodness and self-giving devotion that we have seen in a movie since Sean Astin played Sam in The Lord of the Rings. The trick to Isaac's performance is that he lets us see Joseph's darker side, even as he shows Joseph bravely keeping it under control. When a total stranger meets Joseph and the pregnant Mary, and remarks that there is nothing like seeing your own face in the face of your child, the pained look on Joseph's face speaks volumes: he knows that with this child, at least, this is one aspect of fatherhood that he will never enjoy.

The depth and roundedness of Joseph's character is also evident in the way he handles the crisis that emerges when Mary's pregnancy becomes obvious to their neighbors, who shun Mary and her family as a result. Joseph sheds tears and wrestles with his own feelings of betrayal, but he also uses humor to buoy Mary's spirits, particularly when the two of them leave Nazareth for Bethlehem.

The film also makes some interesting allusions to people and events from the future ministry of Jesus. As Mary and Joseph make the arduous journey to Bethlehem for the census, they buy one of their meals from a Galilean fisherman—might his name be Jonah (father of Peter and Andrew) or Zebedee (father of James and John)?—and as they pass by the Temple in Jerusalem, Joseph expresses his disgust with the hucksters there, the same hucksters that Jesus will chase out one day. Even better, when Herod's troops attack the babies in Bethlehem, one soldier looks inside the cave where Jesus was born, and finds an empty manger—an image that brings to mind the empty clothes that Jesus' disciples will one day find in his tomb.

For all the talk of "realism" and "authenticity" that has surrounded this film, it is still very much a family-friendly Christmas pageant, a Christmas crèche brought to theatrical life. While Mary does experience labor pains, the birth of Jesus is remarkably clean, with no placenta or umbilical cord in sight. The Magi, who trek for months, are the comic relief—more like the Three Amigos than the Three Wise Men—and they show up at the cave on the night of Jesus' birth, instead of months or even years later, as many interpreters would insist. (For one thing, if they arrived on the night of the birth itself, with Herod's soldiers only a few days behind them, it wouldn't leave much time for Joseph and Mary to dedicate Jesus or to meet Simeon and Anna at the Temple in Jerusalem—an episode that is missing from this film.)

But it's perfectly okay to take those kinds of liberties with a story like this, especially if it allows the filmmakers to express spiritual truths that go beyond mere historical facts. As Gaspar (Stefan Kalipha), one of the Magi, says when he sees the Christ child, the baby in Mary's arms is "God made into flesh." It is unlikely that a pagan astrologer would have thought in such clearly incarnational terms, so many years before any actual Christians did, but it is still kind of neat to hear him express that belief. I mean, when was the last time you heard that in a mainstream movie?

Talk About It/Discussion starters
1. A recurring theme in this film is the story of Elijah hearing God's "still small voice" (1 Kings 19). Why does the film refer to this story? In what way is Mary, or Joseph, or Jesus, a "still small voice"? What "still small voices" have you heard in your own spiritual walk?

2. What does this film reveal about love? What kind of love does Joseph have for Mary? Is it romantic, or something else? What about Elizabeth's love for Zechariah, or for Mary? What examples of fatherly love does the film show? Does Mary come to love Joseph, and if so, what sort of love does she have for him?

3. Consider how the people of Nazareth treat Mary, her parents, and Joseph after they learn that she is pregnant. When have you judged people without knowing their story? When have you stood by people who were being judged by others?

4. The film underscores the political oppression suffered by the Jews under King Herod, and it ends with Mary reciting the Magnificat in a voiceover ("He has brought down rulers from their thronesbut has lifted up the humble," etc.). How is the birth of Jesus an answer to this oppression? Does the film make this point clear?

The Family Corner/For parents to consider
The Nativity Story is rated PG for some violent content (Herod's soldiers kill the babies in Bethlehem, though most of the violence is kept out of frame and no blood is shown; Jewish rebels are pursued by soldiers and later seen crucified, though the act of crucifixion itself is kept offscreen). There are also two scenes of childbirth and one scene in which a baby boy is circumcised, and parents may need to explain to very young children why the people of Nazareth ostracize Mary and her family for her pregnancy. The film is probably too mature for preschoolers and young elementary age, but should be suitable for ages 8 or 9 and up.

© 2006, Peter T. Chattaway subject to licensing agreement with Christianity Today International. All rights reserved. Click for reprint information.

Crosswalk interviews Oscar Isaac (Joseph)

Finding Joseph in "The Nativity Story"
Annabelle Robertson
Entertainment Critic

When Oscar Isaac took on the role of Joseph in the upcoming Bible epic, “The Nativity Story,” the 26-year-old actor had no idea what he would soon be facing.

It wasn’t merely the thought of his first major film role, only a year after leaving Julliard. Isaac had played opposite Rosario Dawson in the Shakespeare in the Park production of “Two Gentlemen in Verona” right after graduation. He had also done an episode of TV’s “Law and Order” and shot two other movies, including next year’s “Guerrilla,” directed by Steven Soderbergh, where he worked with Benicio Del Toro.

Not bad for a Guatemalan-born kid raised in Miami – even if he does look like Antonio Banderas, a few years younger.

Nor was it the weather in Matera, Italy, where “The Nativity Story” was shot – which reached a startling 115 degrees one day – that challenged Isaac. It was, he says, the thought of playing the earthly father of God’s son.

“When I was reading and working on the script, I remember thinking, ‘How do I play this? How do I play that I’m going to have the son of God?’” Isaac said. “It’s such an abstract idea.”

The film, which is directed by Catherine Hardwicke (“Thirteen,” “Lords of Dogtown”), focuses on Mary and Joseph’s betrothal and their treacherous four-day journey to Bethlehem. Written by Mike Rich (“Finding Forrester,” “The Rookie”), the drama boasts a poignant screenplay, historically-accurate sets, and a cast of top-notch actors that include Oscar-nominated Keisha Castle-Hughes (“Whale Rider”) as Mary, Shoreh Agdashloo (“24”) as Elizabeth and Alexander Siddig ( “Syriana” ) as the angel Gabriel.

I recently sat down with Isaac in Los Angeles, where he discussed this momentous role and how the part impacted his own faith. Here’s what he had to say. ...
You look much younger without the beard.
Yeah, without the beard and the first century brow – you know? It’s a little easier nowadays. (laughs)

Mike [Rich, the screenwriter] said this isn’t a typical love story. Would you agree?
I think the fact that there’s a man who loves God so fully and loves this woman so fully and has to share his love with God is pretty untraditional, yeah! (laughs) It’s an interesting character study as well. He has to share his wife with God. He wanted to have a family with this woman. He wanted to have a nice, normal life in his little house that he’s building and suddenly he forced to….kind of, ‘Why her?’ you know? ‘I love her so much, I love you so much, but why couldn’t you have picked anybody else?’

It was so nice to see the character of Joseph fleshed out. Generally, in these types of films, he’s the one character who is off in the background.
Yeah, if you look at all the paintings, he’s the creepy looking guy in the back with all the sheep, just trying to get a space in the picture! (laughs)

And old.
Yeah, old! Very old. But that’s something that Mike tried to sprinkle throughout the film – where maybe Jesus learned some of the things Joseph teaches, like the comment [Joseph makes in the temple], “This is supposed to be a holy place!” Some of those values that are maybe instilled, perhaps from his father. And really, the fact that this is a man whose whole being is one of humility. And I think that was one of Christ’s major teachings.

In “Fiddler on the Roof,” you hear the refrain, “Oh, he’s a good man.” That’s also a refrain in this film, isn’t it?
Right. The Bible describes him as “righteous” – and that’s it. So how do you, as an actor, play “righteous?” What does that mean? Do you stand up straighter? (laughs) So I had to figure that out, and I realized that it’s actions. And for me, or for Joseph, righteous meant love. He looks at Mary. He doesn’t stone her. He doesn’t humiliate her publicly – because he’s righteous. And when I did the scenes, even though I had the anger and the rage and the fear and the doubt, I just loved her so much that suddenly I realized that righteousness means just unselfish, humble love.

And that’s what took me throughout the rest of the film.

One of the most poignant moments in the film is when you and Mary look at each other and you say, “How will I ever teach him anything?” What went through your mind with that thought? How do you teach the son of God?
That was definitely one of the challenges. When I was reading and working on the script, I remember thinking, ‘How do I play this? How do I play that I’m going to have the son of God?’ It’s such an abstract idea. I just didn’t know what to think about it. Then I realized that that was exactly what Joseph was thinking. He has no clue what that means. He doesn’t know if he’s going to come out a full man, if there are going to be millions of angels – or what. He has no idea what to expect. So that gave me some freedom to think about those things.

Can you talk about some of the resources and experience you drew upon to go into these deep emotions, especially as someone who is very young and, I presume, does not have children.
It’s funny. When we were in Italy rehearsing the film, before I really had my “righteousness equals love” revelation, every time we rehearsed that scene where she told me she was pregnant, I would leave. I couldn’t stay in the room. I’d want to walk out and hit something. I couldn’t figure out how to do the scene. I even said, ‘Maybe we should just change it, because I just can’t get there.’ I called my professor from Julliard and he said, ‘Well, you need to find a reason to stay.’ It’s such a simple thing to say but… It’s not saying that you’re not feeling all those things, or that you’re not wanting to choke her or do something, but why do you stay? I think that helped me figure it out, to think about how you can attack a scene in the deepest way possible.

Why does he stay?
Because he’s completely in love with her. And you can say that love comes from God, but there’s a depth of love that he had.

How much theological discussion was there on set, from changes in script to theology to history?
A lot. For me, that was incredibly important – that this was a young, Jewish man in the first century – and what does that mean? Also, little things. When I do the prayer for the bread, I was told not to say “Adonai” but “Adoshem,” because apparently you don’t say the name of God unless you are in certain circumstances.

How did you get the accent down so well?
That’s also from Julliard. They’re really good at teaching you how to manipulate the muscles in your mouth to do different accents pretty quickly.

Was there any kind of spiritual experience for you, making this film? Was it just work or were there moments where you were alone, and maybe thought about things that you wouldn’t have thought about had you not made this movie?
Absolutely. I did read a lot in the Bible. When I picked up that thing about love, I had started to read about love – what’s biblical love. I was reading about that, and the power of humility. It had never really hit me before. When I saw the film, I said, ‘Oh, my gosh. This is the greatest act of humility.’ This is how God decides to come to Earth. That’s a really powerful message.

So you have had a bit of a faith walk yourself? Can you tell us a bit like what that was like, both before and after the film?
Yeah, definitely. I definitely grew up in a very devout Christian home. Then, as Joseph, you know, you kind of go through this journey of asking yourself questions, wondering if you’re listening to God in the right way. You rebel in some ways against what your parents teach you, and it’s definitely been a revolution of how I think. During the film, I didn’t want to get into it in my own head, you know, but doing the film forced me to think about those things – my own spirituality. Having to play a pious Jewish man and not knowing what that was like. Because I think the Jews in Israel during the first century, there was no separation between them and God. God was integral to their lives, and to have to play somebody who was that devout, you have to put yourself in that place.

During a part of the journey, Mary prays, ‘Lord, help us.’ Did you ever find yourself praying in the midst of filming, even for a scene to be over, or an animal to cooperate?
Well, even the most non-religious people, the dire circumstances, I think, say, ‘God, help!’ But I would. I did. In almost every scene, I would pray for some kind of illumination. For instance, the Gabriel scene was a hard, hard scene. How do you play seeing an angel? So I prayed. Then I literally just opened the Bible and it opened to Jeremiah, where it talks about this guy and how he reacted when he saw the angel. I thought that was kind of funny.

I loved the scene where you paid off the Roman soldiers for the donkey that belonged to Mary’s father. It was so touching, and so humble.
Right, yeah. And it’s not like this guy was loaded.

It was also brave. There was a risk. These were armed soldiers who could have just as easily killed you for asking.
Yeah, exactly.

Then again, maybe he just wanted an excuse to talk to Mary!
Yes, but all those things are happening simultaneously. He does want to just talk to her. He wants to be in a room with her, even if he doesn’t have anything to say, even if it’s awkward. But that’s what is really special about “The Nativity Story.” It treats them as real people, but yet you’re still able to get all the power of the story.

I understand that you actually made the staff that you use in the film. Why did you decide to do that?
Well, first of all, [Joseph’s] hands were key – physically. After figuring out what he was going through emotionally, I had to figure what he was like. I had little dainty actor hands, so it was important for me to have the carpenter, first-century, person-of-the-land hands. So, for a month, with technical advisors, we worked. I worked with first century tools. And every day I’d go and I’d make something. I’d do masonry work. So by the time shooting came, those hands were calloused and swollen and scratched. It gave me something less to think about – to be self-conscious about.

Do you still have the staff?
(Nods) I take it with me on the subway! (laughs)

Rated PG for some violent content, “The Nativity Story" opens Friday, December 1 in more than 8,000 theaters worldwide.

Crosswalk Reviews "Nativity"

"Nativity Story" Brings Real Meaning of Christmas to Life
Lisa Rice
Contributing Writer

Release Date: December 1, 2006
Rating: PG (for some violent content)
Genre: Drama/History
Run Time: 101 minutes
Director: Katherine Hardwicke
Actors: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar Isaac, Ciaran Hinds, and Allessandro Guiggioli

I have a dream. … Imagine if you will, parents pushing aside all the meaningless movies about Santa crises, glowing reindeers, North Pole fiascos, irritating Christmas relatives, greedy Grinches and stingy Scrooges on the rental shelf, and pulling to the forefront a winsome, compelling, well-crafted movie that brings the real story of Christmas to life for the whole family.

As much as such a radical selection might confuse our Santa-indoctrinated children, it could be very worth the risk. Well, it seems that such a movie has arrived! Opening this weekend, “The Nativity Story” is a movie with everything: drama, action, romance, history, and miracles – a sure bet to edge out the shallow, same old “pretend-Christmas” offerings.

“The Nativity Story” is a New Line Cinema production that tells the true story of a very young, engaged Israeli couple, Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and Joseph (Oscar Isaac) and the part they play in God’s often covert, masterful plan to redeem the human race. During the reign of Herod (Ciaran Hinds), a paranoid, narcissistic, power-hungry, Rome-serving ruler in Israel, ancient prophecies are being studied intently – not just by the faith-filled Israelites, but also by curious astrologers and fearful rulers. Because all signs seem to be pointing to the imminent arrival of a king for Israel, wise men are taking road trips, prophets are making curious proclamations, and kings are ordering that baby boys be murdered. Amidst such an environment, Mary and Joseph have to make a 100-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be counted in a Rome-ordered census.

Their journey is complicated by the fact that Mary is a pregnant virgin whose accounts of angelic visitations have alienated her from her friends; Joseph has taken a huge risk to believe the angel who encouraged a marriage instead of a stoning; and the couple is hungry, tired, facing dangers on the road and running from the insane Herod and his not-so-adorable son, Antipas (Allessandro Guiggioli). And a crowded Bethlehem with no vacancies is the last straw when the labor pains begin. It will take a miracle from God for the savior of the world to be safely born and hidden from Herod’s jealous reign of terror.

“The Nativity Story” is beautifully filmed, with realistic scenes of ancient Israeli countryside, Herod’s palace, crowded Jerusalem markets, the temple, and little Bethlehem. The characters are very believable and even humorous at times. At one point, when the shunned couple is leaving town as their friends scowl at them, Joseph says to Mary, “They’re going to miss us.” The experienced filmmakers manage to make the supernatural seem natural, as with the angelic visits, and the cinematography is memorable, with little flecks of wheat flying almost magically in the air during the harvest. The soundtrack is terrific, evoking great emotion throughout the film. It would have been nice, however, to see just one kiss between Mary and Joseph, as well as interesting to see Herod’s rage at the end. But otherwise, all the elements for intrigue are there.

The movie also provides plenty of material for great family discussions. For instance, “who remembers what gold, frankincense, and myrrh stand for?” Or, “I wonder why those people saw evidence of the supernatural all the time (angelic visits to Mary and Joseph, Zechariah hearing the audible voice of God and becoming deaf through unbelief, Elizabeth becoming pregnant in her old age, prophecies being foretold and fulfilled, constellations coming together to form a star of such magnificence that astrologers would drop everything to follow it, and of course Mary becoming pregnant through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit). Were these things just for biblical times or certain scattered purposes of God’s plan, or should we be seeing more of the supernatural in our lives? Are these things still out there but just undetected because our brains are full of electronics and media?”

Since “The Passion of the Christ,” it appears that a door has been opened for biblically-based movies to be showcased in mainstream venues, and “The Nativity Story” is a perfect fit for the new wave of receptivity. (Regrettably, however, not everyone is waiting with open arms. A local Christian DJ told our audience that a certain Chicago Film Festival tried to disallow this film from showing, but several members of the community got together and pushed it through.)

“The Nativity Story” is a must-see for families this Christmas season. But beware: The other cinematic imitations in theaters will suddenly seem even more shallow than before!

AUDIENCE: Older children and adults


Drugs/Alcohol: None.
Language: None.
Sex: None.
Violence: Sword fights, Herod’s army thundering into town on horses, kicking in doors, and grabbing babies out of mothers’ arms, etc.

CNN Reviews "Nativity"

Review: The greatest 'Story' ever dulled
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN

(CNN) -- Low-budget Christian cinema has been quietly racking up small but significant profits over the last few years without troubling the mainstream media, but thanks to "The Passion of the Christ," bigger studios are weighing in.

"The Nativity Story" is a major release (from New Line, like CNN a unit of Time Warner), and boasts the kind of production values only money can buy. Discreetly ecumenical in thrust, it's a reverent, orthodox movie aimed at churchgoers across the spectrum.

A little too reverent, perhaps. It takes the first chapter in the Greatest Story Ever Told and turns it into a mild yarn.

Drawing on the gospels of Matthew and Luke, screenwriter Mike Rich takes no liberties with Scripture, though there are occasional concessions to contemporary sensibilities. Instructed that she is to be married to Joseph, Mary worries that she is not in love with him.

Director Catherine Hardwicke's two previous films, "Thirteen" and "Lords of Dogtown," both centered on troubled teens, and at a pinch you could lump "The Nativity Story" in with them.

Hardwicke angles for historical authenticity, and convincingly reproduces life in Judea 2007 years ago. (The production was largely based in Matera, the same Italian town used in "The Passion of the Christ.") We are treated to scenes of Nazarene farming, food preparation and religious instruction that have the faint mustiness of an old National Geographic about them.

The casting approximates ethnic realities (at least, you won't find Jeffrey Hunter or Max von Sydow here, though Belfast-born Ciaran Hinds is an old-school scheming Herod). Whether by accident or design, most of the Jews are played by actors of Persian or Arabic descent, including Shohreh Aghdashloo, as Mary's cousin Mary, Shaun Toub as Mary's father and Alexander Siddig as Gabriel.

The Virgin Mary herself is played with earnest fortitude by the Maori actress Keisha Castle-Hughes, who seems to have surrendered most of the spontaneity and joy that made her the youngest-ever best actress nominee for "Whale Rider" a few years back. Her performance hits one note, over and over.(Watch when the unwed 16-year-old actress revealed her off-screen pregnancy)

However, Guatemalan-born Oscar Isaac is a real find as Joseph, hinting at pent-up anger, humiliation and doubt beneath the character's fundamental integrity. He's a markedly younger Joseph than we're used to seeing, and his crisis is the meatiest drama in the story (except perhaps for Herod's infamy).

"The Nativity Story" is a shade more sensitive to the dilemmas presented by a virgin pregnancy in a strictly religious society than previous incarnations of the story -- when she returns home Mary is under threat of stoning -- but the film's scrupulous, rather plodding treatment only exacerbates the tale's familiarity. It's a relief whenever the magi are on screen, just for the very mild comic interplay they allow.

Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with preaching to the converted -- secular Hollywood does it all the time. But I confess I wish the movie had some of the passion of "The Passion of the Christ." For all that film's bloody excess, at least it communicated Mel Gibson's absolute need to make it.

Hardwicke and Rich have taken the safer road and played it by the book, but they never once risk putting their audience's beliefs to the test.

"The Nativity Story" is rated PG and runs 101 minutes.

Friday, December 01, 2006

"Nativity" Releases Today!

Behind the Scenes Promotional!

TV Guide Reviews "Nativity"

Full Review - The Nativity Story

Though Catherine Hardwicke made her directing debut with the girls-gone-wild expose THIRTEEN (2003) and might seem a controversial choice for a religious film, this retelling of the familiar tale is as solemnly predictable as a Catholic-school nativity play, and nearly as dull. It begins in a scrum of churning hoofs, as wicked King Herod (Ciaran Hinds, all but twirling his handsome moustache with evil glee), dispatches soldiers to slaughter all of tiny Bethlehem's male children under the age of 2, hoping to derail the prophecy that says the tiny town will spawn a king for all people. Flashback to one year earlier: Elderly priest Zechariah (Stanley Townsend) visits Jerusalem's Great Temple and hears a voice whispering that his equally mature wife, Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo), is pregnant with a prophet. For the sin of doubting, Zechariah is struck dumb. Meanwhile, in hardscrabble Nazareth, Elizabeth's teenage cousin Mary (15-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes), is betrothed by her impoverished parents (Hiam Abbass, Shaun Toub) to a steady, respectable local man, Joseph (Oscar Isaac). But shortly after, Mary is visited by an angel (Alexander Siddig) who says she too will bear a son, though she's never known a man. Joseph soon faces a painful dilemma: If he denounces his pregnant fiancee for adultery she'll be stoned and her family disgraced, but claiming the child will make him a liar and, unless he believes her incredible story of angels and prophecies, a fool. Simultaneously, in Persia, three scholarly kings (Nadim Sawalha, Stefan Kalipha, Eriq Ebouaney) — incongruously played as bickering fools, presumably in an attempt to inject some levity into the mix — deduce that the Messiah's birth is imminent and set out to witness the miraculous event. Screenwriter/executive producer Mike Rich approaches this material conscientiously, attempting to integrate biblical accounts of Jesus' birth, evoke day-to-day life in ancient Judea and reveal the human faces of iconic figures. The cast is generally strong (though veteran Hinds seriously overdoes the nefarious leers), leans heavily toward actors who either come from the Middle East or look as though they could have, and boasts two Oscar nominees: Castle-Hughes and Aghdashloo. The locations, in Southern Italy, Morocco and Israel's re-created "Nazareth Village," feel vividly authentic. But THE NATIVITY STORY is slow, solemn going, despite its best efforts at thundering soldiers and comic-relief kings. THE NATIVITY STORY was the first feature film to premiere at the Vatican, whose Secretary of State, one Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, praised its "respect of the mystery of the nativity" and declared it "a good cinematic event." --Maitland McDonagh