The Nativity Story

A Film Review

Reviewed by James F. Strange

Viewers of The Nativity Story may wonder about the authenticity of such things as the sets, the costumes, the closeness of the story to the narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (from which the story is drawn), the depiction of Herod and of Mary, and so forth. I accepted the invitation see the movie in part because I am a practicing archaeologist. Would the archaeologist in me be gratified, but the rest of me be offended? Or would it be the other way around?

Early in the movie Mary (played by 16-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes) is shown working in her father’s fields and witnessing the arrival of the tax collectors and their military escort. We get a good chance to see houses, fields, farming tools, clothing, and the full panoply of material culture.

“Well,” I thought, “They did a good job. I wonder who they talked to.” The sets and clothing of the Galileans are wonderful, though no one gets to wear color. So is the armament and armor of the soldiers. Yet, some of the houses had huge openings onto the street. That was for the convenience of the cinematographer and not in the interests of archaeological accuracy.

I also noticed that Mary was not merely a child of 13 as some insist on legendary grounds. For that matter Joseph (Oscar Issac) is also not a (legendary) old man, but a local young man of marriageable age. Mary’s mother Anna (Hiam Abbass) is almost always a protective presence, as we expect.

The Archangel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) visits Mary to tell her of her impending, miraculous impregnation. Gabriel is dressed in white, but thankfully sports no huge bird wings (though he seems to fly away as a hawk). Mary responds more or less as Matthew has it, but screenwriter Mike Rich does not hesitate to generate dialogue drawn from neither Matthew nor Luke.

By the way, when Gabriel makes his announcement to Zechariah (played by Stanley Townsend, who actually prays in Hebrew) that his wife Elizabeth will give birth to the future John the Baptist, all we see is a wisp of smoke coming up from the altar of incense, not Gabriel in the round. We get to see him fully when he appears to Mary. On the other hand his voice announces the birth to the shepherds, and he simply leaves. We—and they—hear no heavenly host praising God. Furthermore the film omits the flight to Egypt.

Herod is appropriately sinister. He looked very familiar to me, and then I finally realized that Ciaran Hinds, the actor who portrays him, also played Julius Caesar in the HBO series Rome. Herod is obviously the oriental client-king of ultimate power, but he is also clearly obsessed with fear of losing his position and his life, either at the hands of one of his own sons or from the Messiah. In fact, the movie introduces tension at the beginning with Herod’s murder of the babies of Bethlehem.

The scandal of Mary’s pregnancy in a close-knit village is artfully portrayed. Mary is visibly pregnant when she returns from visiting her cousin Elizabeth (Shohreh Agdashloo), who is pregnant with John the Baptist. Joseph is clearly enraged that Mary is pregnant but is not consumed by bitterness.

The movie tries to make an epic or saga out of the trip of the finally compliant Joseph and the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem in response to the Roman census. The director, Catherine Hardwicke, must not have asked anyone what the topography of Galilee, Samaria (or Peraea), and Judea looked like. The trip took Mary and Joseph through nothing but desert, deserted paths, and dangerous currents in a surprisingly deep Jordan, traveling with hardly anyone. Mary nearly drowns in a whipping current of the Jordan, an event that appears nowhere in the New Testament or the Apocrypha.

But in Jerusalem something happens to the topography. When Zechariah is preparing to serve his Priestly duty in the Temple at the opening of the movie, he is shown standing in front of the façade of the Temple within the priestly court. But so are his wife Elizabeth and some other women, presumably family. I thought, “Oh, no!” The same boo-boo occurs when the holy couple walks through Jerusalem. There is apparently no Court of Gentiles, no Court of Women, and no Court of Israel. Anybody can march by and criticize the priests vetting sacrifices in front for money, as Joseph does.

There is also a sub-plot involving the visit of the Magoi, as Matthew calls them. In the film they call each other Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, even though these names are not in the Gospels. The film also gets them to Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth, so that we see animals, shepherds, and the three Magi all at once, the latter with their camels. This is not the way scholars harmonize Matthew and Luke. After all, Matthew reports that the Magi see the “child” (not a baby) in a “house,” which implies some time has passed. Surely everyone notices that they provided comic relief, whatever Matthew says. And the star the Magi followed? The movie follows NASA’s theory that Venus and Jupiter appeared together in the constellation Leo.

The archaeologist in me was only offended by the depiction of the Temple and the topography of the trip to Jerusalem. The rest of me was gratified that the movie was more or less faithful to Matthew and Luke, though I detected a certain insensitivity about the depiction of Jewish priests.

James F. Strange is distinguished university professor and executive director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Hellenic Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

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