What Hath Mel Wrought, part 1
THE NATIVITY STORY (Catherine Hardwicke, USA, 3)
It would have been easy enough to ignore this movie or maybe enjoy its small favors or appreciate its (efforts at) piety if it had been made a few years ago. But we are now after THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, and are in an era when the phrase “Passion dollars” means something other than the 50-bucks you leave on the nightstand of the rent-by-the-hour motel. Every studio and his brother is launching a Religious Division or some or another Jesus project. But THE NATIVITY STORY has all the faults of “Contemporary Christian Cinema (Music)” — and without the excuses.
This was not the $100,000 work of a bunch of inspired amateurs (in the best sense of both words) from a Georgia church. This was a major film with a $30 million budget, an Indiewood A-list director and cast, location shooting in Italy and Morocco, a premiere at the Vatican.
And for what — to produce a rote Christmas pageant so lifeless, so lacking in dramatic juice that you come away more interested in the gossip about the child of Keisha Castle-Hughes (Mary) than about the child her character was carrying. This isn’t dispositive, but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb that a religious film should leave you wanting to know more about the religion. After I saw Kim Ki-duk’s SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER … AND SPRING … well, I didn’t go shave my head and get fitted for saffron robes, but the film certainly made Buddhism “attractive,” in a certain sense. But THE NATIVITY STORY fails completely on that score — it’s a dramatically inert series of picture postcards, relying 100 percent on pre-programmed responses. It’s one thing to assume that the audience knows the basic story and accepts it as truth in order to take our emotions in new directions, as THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST does; it’s quite another to require the audience to provide those emotional responses too.
This should be a Marian story, as she is the principal human protagonist. But Castle-Hughes plays the Blessed Virgin in a manner so blank-faced that you have to think she was either not directed at all or is trying to act “numbed.” The problem for the latter is that she has not been convincingly “shaken up” in the first place, which would have required either a more interesting conversation or a different sort of “presence” from the angel Gabriel, or a bitterer family quarrel. Give me Maia Morgenstern’s Mary from THE PASSION every second of every day.
In fact, the whole movie is boringly low-key and conflict-free (i.e., no “drama” in the usual sense). It’s trying its durndest to be devout and uncontroversial, but that only makes its deadness on the screen comes off as offensive. Say what you like about Gibson again, but surely one of the lessons of the PASSION is that religious controversy sells, at least if it flows from real conviction. But hey, if what you want from movies is that they not use the filthy words they had in GONE WITH THE WIND and that they have a more moral “uplift” than SAW 3 (and some do) … then rush out and see this by all means.
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