The concept sounds pretty awesome: a behind-the-scenes look at the conception and birth of Jesus, directed by a fearless expert on teen sluttiness (Catherine Hardwicke, of Thirteen), starring a hot Joseph and that girl from Whale Rider with the cool-looking face. With such fascinating and fucked-up source material (virgin birth? massacre of the innocents?), The Nativity Story could have been so many interesting things: honest, humanizing, relatable, pointed. But no such luck. Instead, the film is a boring, historically vague, cowardly regurgitation of the tale that rerouted the course of mankind—so straightforward that it seems to have sprung fully formed from the Pope's armpit. It's cuddly, Christian cinema for the already convinced; about as deep as Life of Brian, and without the jokes.
The most interesting thing about The Nativity Story happened behind the scenes, and after the movie was finished. Ever the Method actress, 16-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes (the film's glassy-eyed Mary) has gotten herself not-so-virginally knocked up, and may or may not have been uninvited from the Vatican premiere (officially she's just "not scheduled to attend"). The lucky father is the 19-year-old boyfriend Castle-Hughes has been dating since she was 13. And despite it being astoundingly none of their business, Castle-Hughes assured a chagrined Vatican that during the filming of Nativity, she was in a "state of grace." Ick!
Now to the boring part. Mary is your typical Nazarene teen: gossiping with the girls by the donkey-powered mill, whipping up blocks of soggy sheep cheese, picking hay off her tunic, and avoiding the rapey gaze of King Herod's cavalry. Nazareth is kind of a shithole, but it's home. So she's none too pleased when smoldering, hunky Joseph (squeal!) asks for her hand in marriage and plucks her from her carefree girlhood.
Soon after her reluctant nuptials—but before any private consummation—while wandering for no reason through a grove, Mary is visited by a majestic falcon (SKREEEE!). Ta-daaah! That's no falcon! It's actually one glowing, tall-and-a-half angel named Gabriel, with an important announcement: "Come, you will conceive in your womb. And bear a son. And call his name Jesus." It's not just any baby, though, and not just any baby-daddy—instead, Gabriel explains, one of these nights, the old Holy Spirit's gonna sneak up her Suez Canal and plant a Messiah in there! Hot!
Well, all right, says Mary. For a teenager told she's going to give birth to God, the girl takes it placidly in stride. In fact, she really couldn't be more bored by the news: "A Messiah. To deliver my people," she murmurs... Hmm, sounds pretty cool. After the immaculate gestation, with Mary's holy bump in full view, Big Joe is crushed: "I chose you because I believed you were a woman of great virtue." He's just contemplating death-by-stoning, when—SKREEEE!—here comes Gabriel to let him know that everything's cool. It's an anticlimactic deus ex machina (literally) that will satisfy none but the already faithful, preaching (again, literally) to the converted.
Long story short, The Nativity Story is nothing you didn't already know. Hardwicke's directorial hand is timid to the point of invisibility, as though she lacks the guts to tamper with such a canonical tale. Instead of character development, dramatic tension, or theological heft, she intersperses the film's King James–literality with weird moments of comic relief, such as a circumcision scene (haw!), and that hee-larious Sunday school favorite: the Kvetching of the Magi. Crossing a desert of vertiginous dunes (a landscape that looks conspicuously like Morocco, where the movie was filmed, and conspicuously unlike Iraq, where the journey takes place), the Wise Men crack wise, mostly about who's the wisest, and how they got into this stupid pilgrimage in the first place.
Without a point of view, there's not much suspense in the story of the nativity. Mostly, it's just a lot of walking. Mary and Joseph walking to Bethlehem. The Three Kings (of COMEDY!) riding camels to Bethlehem. King Herod pacing, vengefully. The most dramatic moment comes when a slithery river snake spooks their donkey, and Mary falls into some waist-deep water. Oh, the horror. Even when Herod's troops descend upon Bethlehem, slaughtering every child under one year old, Mary and Joseph and Jesus just sort of... leave. And start walking to Egypt like it's no prob. Pan up toward heaven, the sun bursts through the clouds, cue "Silent Night," roll credits, and it all congeals into the most expensive yard-art tableau ever made.