Mary, Quite Contrary
It Works Better Out On Your Lawn
There's not much commonality between the two extremes of biblical dramatics. On one hand is the overwrought splendor of epics such as The Ten Commandments, King of Kings, and The Greatest Story Ever Told; on the other hand is the towel-clad wise men and cotton-ball sheep of grade-school Nativity pageants. Isn't there an unclaimed middle territory just big enough for a human-sized story about ordinary folks moved to extraordinary circumstance by divine grace?
If there is, there's no one more ordinary than Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes). She's just another teenager in the rude hamlet of Nazareth--not extraordinarily pretty, not fanatically devout, but a decent enough kid who heeds her parents and kisses the mezuzah before crossing a threshold. Director Catherine Hardwicke--whose previous movies Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown also showed a gimlet-eyed sensitivity about adolescence--correctly senses that the Nativity story is Mary's story, and to understand the full measure of her extraordinary life we've got to know her first as the swarthy small-town girl she was, not the haloed Dresden doll of holy-card fame she became.
When the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) appears to her and declares she will bear the Lord's child, however, that's where the movie abandons us. If unchaste women in Mary's village faced death by stoning, why does this unremarkable girl quickly agree with the angel's life-threatening request? Is she more devout than we realized? Is she conjuring a hallucinatory excuse for an indiscretion? Has she been hungering for motherhood? Does she just want to get out of this backwater town? It's as if the screenwriters decided a legitimate, human motivation bordered on sacrilege, and so we're left with a protagonist who moans once to her cousin Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo), "Why has God chosen me?"--and then adopts the standardized pose of beatific face and hand on belly for every remaining scene.
Once the story's main character loses all firmness, The Nativity Story's mediocrities rise irritatingly to the surface. Everyone in the multinational cast speaks their rigid and stale dialogue in the same pretentious, half-British theatrical diction, fortified with a few Semitic consonants for "authenticity." The ramen noodle beard pasted to the chin of King Herod (Ciarán Hinds) starts looking silly. Pastiches of Christmas carols begin creeping into the overripe score. And by the time Mary gives birth with the Star of Bethlehem shining down on her like the Bat Signal, you've lost all patience. Maybe the people behind The Nativity Story factored in the willingness of religious audiences to plaster over the story's most egregious cracks with their unquestioning devotion to the underlying scripture. Everyone else should stick to cheering your local cotton-ball sheep instead.