In the case of films based on Biblical events, the temptation in recent years has been to deride movies of the past as unsophisticated and kitschy, and to elevate current-day religious films as superior. This is a mistake, as there are many excellent films with Biblical themes that viewers obsessed with surface realism would miss, as I noted in my National Review Online review of the excellent 2004 film The Gospel of John.
In the case of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, the passion for realism manifests itself in a shocking luridness that happens to serve the film very well. (For a full analysis of Gibson's film, see my National Review Online article on it.)
In The Nativity Story, now in theaters, a similar sense of the violence, corruption, and dirtiness of the Israel of that time prevails, but here too, the filmmakers make sure that it serves the story.
The film depicts the Israel into which Jesus Christ is born as a rather dirty, poor place under Roman occupation. The focus of the film is nonetheless strongly on the widespread belief that the Messiah is about to arrive. Following the Biblical account accurately, Mary's cousin Elizabeth conceives a child late in life, which God sends as a sign of the One to come. The child, of course, will grow up to be John the Baptist.
Upon realizing that his fiancee, Mary, is with child, Joseph is understandably appalled by what he can only assume is an act of unfaithfulness on the part of his betrothed, and the actors do a fine job of playing these scenes. By introducing the specter of the Jewish punishment for adultery at the time—stoning to death—the film gives a strong motivation for Joseph's decision to accept the child as his own; it will save the lives of both Mary and the as yet unborn child. Afterwards, as in the Biblical accounts, Joseph is visited by an angel who confirms Mary's story. This entire story line is presented very well indeed.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the distant East, three wise men interpret the stars and some old texts and conclude that a savior for the entire world will soon be born. Guided by a unique star formation, they set off to greet this individual. Debating amusingly among themselves, the magi provide a welcome lightening of tone in their scenes.
Of course wicked Herod, King of Israel, fears the coming Messiah and plots to avert his arrival (and Herod's presumed downfall as the new king comes) by killing everyone who fits the varying interpretations of the descriptions of the Messiah in the Tanakh, what Christians call the Old Testament. This leads, of course, to some violent movie action, suspense, hairsbreadth escapes, and the like.
It's all, however, in great accord with the Biblical accounts and illustrates the story quite well. (The biggest factual quibble I noticed is that the magi seem to arrive on the night of Jesus's birth, whereas the Gospel of Matthew makes it clear that they must have come at least a few days later, and even that's a pretty minor complaint.)
The Nativity Story is in theaters now.
From Karnick on Culture.