Despite the positive reviews I had heard of The Nativity Story, I went to the movie prepared to be a critic. After all, I thought, it was my duty to see through the cinematic gimmicks and factual errors to produce a film review. Though I came to the film a bit cynically, I left feeling uplifted and moved.
The Nativity Story chronicles the annunciation, Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and Joseph’s (Oscar Isaac) journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and the birth of Christ. The film’s combination of biblical accuracy, excellent acting (directed by Catherine Hardwicke), outstanding cinematography (Elliot Davis), and well-written story (Mike Rich) is both believable and compelling.
The emotions of Mary and Joseph, and indeed all of the characters in The Nativity Story, are portrayed well. The development of each character, although not detailed in the text of Scripture, makes sense within the context of the story, both historically and humanly.
Mary and Joseph are afraid of what lies ahead after they are shunned by most of the people in their hometown for supposed pre-marital relations. Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and Zechariah (Stanley Townsend) are steadfast in their support of Mary and of each other as their son John is born. The Jewish people live in fear of the Romans and are treated ruthlessly by Herod the Great (Ciarán Hinds) and Herod Antipas (Alessandro Giuggioli). The Magi are both anxious to reach their destination and sometimes doubtful of what they will find there. The shepherds are awestruck when they see the infant Messiah, filled with joy beyond words as they receive the gift “for all mankind.”
Perhaps the most interesting writing and directing choices surround the foreshadowing of Mary and Joseph’s influence on Jesus. The two main characters said and did many things that reminded me of scenes from the life of Christ. Joseph confesses to Mary, “I wonder if I will even be able to teach [Jesus] anything,” but the writers imply that both he and Mary, with mercy, grace, and wisdom, have a profound effect on the Messiah.
Joseph learns of the divinity of Mary’s child in a dream that begins with Mary about to be stoned for adultery. As Joseph hesitates to cast the stone, the angel Gabriel speaks to him. This episode evokes the story in John 8 of Jesus’ mercy on the woman caught in adultery. Mary describes Joseph as “a man who will give himself before anyone else,” a description that would also fit Christ. My favorite foreshadowing of Christ’s life occurred when Mary and Joseph passed by the Temple in Jerusalem. Confronted by merchants selling animals for sacrifice, Joseph voices his anger to Mary that such trade is going on in a holy place. This righteous indignation mirrors Christ’s fury against the moneychangers in Matthew 21 (see also Mark 11, Luke 19, and John 2).
Mary’s influence on Christ is also evident. First and foremost, her obedience to God’s will and faith that He will protect and provide for her is a trait that we see throughout Jesus’ life. She is unbending to people’s scorn and disbelief, never wavering in her confidence in God’s plan for her and her child, despite her fear. Joseph tells her, “Do you know why I picked you [for my wife]? Because I thought you were a woman of virtue.” This commendation of her character makes the virtue of Christ a partial reflection of his mother’s influence. In a beautiful scene that foreshadows Christ’s servant heart (especially in John 13), Mary washes Joseph’s dusty feet as he sleeps, exhausted from their long journey to Bethlehem.
The film ends as Mary and Joseph travel to Egypt, fleeing from Herod and his soldiers. As they struggle across the desert with the newborn Christ, Mary’s voice resounds with the words of the Magnificat, “My soul glories the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” I left the theater with joy at the story of the Nativity, joy that “the Mighty One has done great things,” and that those things are so well portrayed in this film so that we can have a visual hint at the splendor of our faith history. I commend it to you and your families!