Queen Spoo's Review
5 "The days are coming," declares the LORD,
"when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
and do what is just and right in the land.
6 In his days Judah will be saved
and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called:
The LORD Our Righteousness.
As we see the village of Nazareth and the everyday life of Mary and her family, the rusticness and poverty is well-conveyed. She helps in the fields, makes and sells cheese with her family, and assists neighbors with tasks. Despite the poor circumstances, largely due to the overtaxing and occupation by the Romans, it appears that the villagers get along and make as much of their community together as possible. However, this tightknit community also is quite judgmental—as was typical of Jewish society—later on when Mary comes back pregnant from her visit with Elizabeth. Before all of this, when Mary is betrothed to Joseph—likely because he is attracted to her, and also because her father is financially unstable—we meet a very winsome man as portrayed by Oscar Isaac. We see Joseph as nervous around the girl he’s in love with, unsure of how to deal with her walking out of the house after she is betrothed. We also get glimpses of the type of man Joseph is, honorable and considerate, when he recovers Mary’s father’s donkey that the Romans took for tax payment. However, Mary’s response, as portrayed by Castle-Hughes, I found to be less than inspiring—her expression hardly seemed grateful, and she nearly inaudibly thanked Joseph as she walks off with the donkey.
The visitation by Gabriel to Mary occurs in broad daylight while she is resting in the groves from working. Initially, she senses something is different because of the wind—reminiscent of the story recurring in the Jewish scripture-telling from I Kings 19:11-12 that God was not in the wind (or the earthquake or the fire), but in the still small voice. His appearance to her appears both human and angelic at the same time, as we see him here in bodily form, though transparent near the ground. After this appearance, Mary decided to visit Elizabeth to see if what Gabriel said was true about her miraculous pregnancy, and going with her parents’ reluctant permission, she finds out it is indeed true. The “girl time” they shared was a good segment of the film, sharing their miraculous pregnancies and helping confirm to Mary that her pregnancy was indeed from God and she wasn’t just dreaming things. Even Elizabeth’s childbirth scene brought some reality to the situation, as Mary looked on with a little dismay that this was something she would be looking forward to.
The film provides an insightful look into what Mary would have faced with her “illegitimate” pregnancy with her family and her neighbors. Joseph shows well-deserved concern, yet shows mercy in his decision not to accuse her so that she won’t be tried and possibly stoned. One of the best scenes of the movie was when Joseph is dreaming about the situation with Mary’s pregnancy, seeing the crowd gathering to stone her, and as he is handed a stone and he nearly throws it at her, Gabriel steps in the way and delivers his message to Joseph to take Mary as his wife and confirms that her child was miraculously conceived.
As they have to leave to Bethlehem for the census, we see some beautiful and rugged landscape, giving the viewers some idea of the arduous journey it would have taken to get there. Again, we see some of the traditional Jewish customs, such as Joseph’s blessing the bread in Hebrew. Furthermore, the good-naturedness of Joseph continues to be shown, particularly when he feeds their donkey some of his bread so that it won’t become too weak for the traveling. Interestingly, as they are walking through Jerusalem on the way on to Bethlehem, as they are walking through the outer courts of the Temple and get sacrificial birds shoved at them for purchase, Joseph makes a striking comment echoing Jesus’ later, saying “I thought this was supposed to be a holy place.”
They finally arrive in Bethlehem, where there is no room as Mary goes into labor. They find an animal cave/stable and Joseph has to deliver Jesus on his own. As they try to get comfortable with the new Baby, shepherds appear from nowhere—including an old one they had previously met on the road—soon followed by the Magi, as Joseph and Mary look on in amazement. Here again, Joseph appears to be mystified, but Mary just looks on without much expression, rather than appearing that she is “pondering all these things and treasured them up in her heart.” Perhaps she is too exhausted from traveling and giving birth.
The film then comes full circle, as Herod gives the order to kill all boys under 2, while Joseph simultaneously gets a message in another dream to hurry and get out of town towards Egypt, narrowly missing the soldiers’ arrival. It ends by showing the family arriving at the pyramids of Egypt, awaiting the next saga to chronicle the next stage in Jesus’ life.
Oscar Isaac turns in a solid performance all around, showing a range of emotions and giving depth to the much-ignored character of Joseph. Keisha Castle-Hughes, on the other hand, provides a disappointing performance, especially after the high standards she performed as the lead Paikea in “Whale Rider.” She may have been trying to portray Mary as serious or pious, but she largely came across as unemotional and bored. Shaun Toub and Hiam Abbass (who actually was born in Nazareth—how cool!) played believable parents to Mary. Shohreh Aghdashloo portrayed a wonderful image of Elizabeth, a kind, compassionate, and righteous woman who helped Mary through her difficult predicament. Ciaran Hinds pulled off a decent balance for the mentally unstable and paranoid King Herod (the Great), showing his vanity, arrogance, and paranoia that his throne would be toppled, even by members of his own family. The Magi were a nice counter to the rest of the film, providing some mild comedy, but without being over the top or being unrealistic. Gaspar’s skepticism was an interesting twist, and made his belief at the end all the more meaningful.
The movie attempts to stay reverent and authentic at the same time. Jewish customs are represented accurately and respectfully, even small ones. One nice touch was the inclusion of a dove whenever an angel departed or the presence of God was indicated, particularly as one flew over Mary after she tells Gabriel that she would accept God’s plan for her to carry Jesus as a particularly representational moment of the Holy Spirit’s presence coming over her as it flew by. Even the use of the cave—rather than a wood stable—showed the greater degree of accuracy than most Christmas films. Theologically, the story was compressed, particularly with the arrival of the Magi with the shepherds, to allow for time as well as the traditional images of the Nativity often seen in crèches. The cinematography was spectacular, keeping it soft and earthy, while maintaining the moments of the divine when needed. The only thing that seemed incongruent was the nitty-grittiness of the whole film until the end for the actual Nativity scene, where it suddenly becomes the picturesque Christmas card. The imagery is beautifully shot, but it seems to insert the quintessential Nativity scene—which I suppose is appropriate for a movie called “The Nativity Story”—perhaps to represent this holy moment differently around the bookends of more realistic renditions of their everyday life.