Updated 11/27/2006 8:36 AM ET
By Anthony Breznican, USA TODAY
The director, 51, says she thought it was a mistake when the script was sent to her last year. "At first I was shocked. I thought, 'Nativity? This can't be the real Nativity story,' but it was, and done in a very reverent manner," she says.
Her two previous films dealt with the brutality of youth, lives fraught with doubt, pressure, anger, sexuality, violence and confusion. She is not regarded as someone who makes soft-focus, feel-good movies.
"As I researched it more, I learned how old Mary was — or how young, I should say. Mary might have been only 13 years old," Hardwicke says. "It started drawing me in. It is such a tender, amazing age, and of course it's an age I've been fascinated with in my other films. So my mind was swirling with the idea of someone that young dealing with these issues."
Religious moviegoers have been getting psyched for the film, and The Nativity Story premiered Sunday night before an audience of thousands in the Vatican's Pope Paul VI auditorium. (Current Pope Benedict XVI did not attend.) A number of cardinals attended the premiere, along with local dignitaries, says Rolf Mittweg, chief of worldwide distribution and marketing for New Line Cinema, which released the movie. Mittweg says the film was greeted with applause Sunday night — and with flashbulbs from the audience when the Christ child appeared onscreen.
Despite the warm reception, it has an obstacle to overcome: The actress playing Mary, a young, unwed pregnant woman 2,000 years ago, is herself pregnant and unwed. Keisha Castle-Hughes, best known for her Oscar-nominated performance in Whale Rider, announced in October she was pregnant at age 16.
No religious leader has made a statement about it, but online chatter about the movie has focused on her pregnancy. Some argue her personal life has no bearing on the film's story, while others praise her for keeping the child. News reports suggested Pope Benedict skipped the movie because of her pregnancy, but church officials say he was simply busy. Castle-Hughes, who is shooting another film in Australia, was not there, either.
She has been missing from nearly all publicity for The Nativity Story, which New Line says was by mutual agreement so she could focus on her pregnancy. Her spokeswoman, Megan Moss, says Castle-Hughes was available for some interviews, but the actress did not respond to a request in time for this article.
Oscar Isaac, who plays Joseph, says, "My sense so far speaking to people is that they are understanding. They're taking the high road and being compassionate, not condemning her." If those uncomfortable with her choices understand the themes of the movie and the lessons of Christ, he adds, "They'll know to treat her in a more righteous way."
History behind the story
The birth of Jesus has been romanticized in countless Christmas pageants over time, but this version of The Nativity Story tries to highlight that Mary and Joseph were not celebrated in their time. Mary would have been an unwed teenage mother, seen as having betrayed her betrothed, Joseph. She lived in a time of brutal Roman occupation, when Herod was taxing and tormenting the Jewish people to the breaking point. "There was such a longing for a messiah because times were bad," says screenwriter Mike Rich (Finding Forrester, The Rookie).
There is theological value in underlining the less-flattering historical elements of the time, says William Fulco, an expert in religion and ancient languages who worked on the film. He also advised Mel Gibson on the blockbuster The Passion of the Christ. "The nature of the incarnation is enmeshed in human society," he says. "To have the cute little sheep and shepherd boy with the glowing face and beating drum shows a certain shame of the human condition, and I think that's a pity."
Jesus' birth is only mentioned in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, and the details are not always in sync. Rich's screenplay combines those texts, plus some imagined elements. "I tried to read between the lines of the biblical accounts to find out what were the doubts, the fears," Rich says. "And that's where you find where the faith came from."
A sequence of dialogue that's not found in the Bible but is in the movie has Mary and Joseph sitting by a river in the midst of their wearying journey to Bethlehem. She asks him if he's scared, and he says, "Yes." Mary says she is, too.
Isaac says doubt is what makes faith remarkable. He says it humanizes the mystical elements of the story. "I'm playing a guy who has to share the woman he loves with God. That's a strange psychological thing to wrap your mind around. The Bible describes Joseph as righteous. How do you play that? Do you stand up a little straighter, deepen your voice? I realized I had an incorrect understanding of what righteous meant. For him, righteousness is love and humility."
This young, selfless Joseph comes off as ... kind of a stud. Hardwicke says with a laugh, "So many women told me that they want a Joseph. We don't see that many movies where you have a guy who's a good, strong man like he is."
A Maori Mary
Another unique approach to The Nativity Story was casting actors of various backgrounds. Castle-Hughes is part Maori, the Polynesian people native to New Zealand. Isaac, of Guatemalan heritage, was cast as Joseph. And Shohreh Aghdashloo, a Muslim actress from Iran (24, House of Sand and Fog), plays Mary's much older cousin, Elizabeth, who becomes the mother of John the Baptist. "That's loaded with symbolism," says Fulco. The diversity "is a particularly nice thing about this film."
Toby Emmerich, production chief of New Line Cinema, says he hopes it crosses over to secular and non-Christian audiences, too. He's Jewish, and emphasized a little-regarded fact — that this is entirely a Jewish story. "I read the script and I cried, and I'm not a Christian."
A debt to 'Passion'
Though Hardwicke would love to bring in the young, secular audience, the key to box-office success rests with the religious moviegoers who made Passion such a hit. "This film could not have been possible without The Passion," Fulco says. "Before that film, people thought a movie would fail because of a religious theme."
Lamar Keener, publisher of the Christian Examiner, says he doubts The Nativity Story will reach Passion levels, but many churches are renting theaters for this film and acting as ticket brokers for the faithful. Evangelical Christians are "very excited about the movie because they understand it's very biblically accurate," he says.
The Vatican screening was a kind of blessing from the Roman Catholic Church, regardless of the pope's absence. And more than 100 churches of various denominations will host preview screenings tonight, an event New Line estimates will draw 50,000 people.
In San Diego, the Baptist mega-church Shadow Mountain Community is selling tickets to the congregation for three shows the day before the movie officially opens. Other churches are doing the same.
So what effect has Castle-Hughes' pregnancy really had? Keener says there is uneasiness about it, but not enough to turn people off the movie. "It's unfortunate, because we don't condone premarital sex or having a child outside of marriage," he says. "That doesn't make it right or good, but she's not evil, either."