King Herod (Ciarán Hinds) is fearful that the ancient prophecy about the birth of a Messiah for the Jewish people is a threat to his reign and so he sends out his troops to slaughter all male children under the age of two in Bethlehem. The story then flashes back to a year earlier when Zechariah (Stanley Townsend), a devoted priest, receives a vision from God telling him that his wife Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo) will bear a child who will be "a prophet, preparing the way for the Lord." Doubting that she can give birth in her old age, he is struck dumb.
The poor people of Nazareth are sweating under the heavy taxes imposed by King Herod, who is constructing a massive palace fortress at Masada. Those who cannot pay have their land and animals confiscated or, worse, see their daughters taken away as slaves. Anna (Hiam Abbass), the mother of Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes), worries about her daughter's safety. Joaquim (Shaun Toub), her poverty stricken father, is concerned about feeding the family and paying the taxes. He arranges a marriage for Mary to Joseph (Oscar Isaac), a carpenter.
Mary is distraught with this arrangement, since she does not love him and is very young. But while she is sitting under her favorite olive tree, the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) brings the news that she has been chosen to bear the son of God, who will be a Savior, and she is to call him Jesus. Gabriel also tells her that her cousin Elizabeth has been selected by God for a special mission. Although overwhelmed by this angelic message, Mary decides to go visit Elizabeth, the only one who might help her understand what is happening. She discovers that Elizabeth is indeed pregnant, and she stays through the birth of John. By now Mary's own pregnancy is showing. As harvest time approaches, she returns home as she had promised.
Meanwhile in Persia, three learned men, known as Magi, study the skies. Melchior (Nadim Sawalha), a scholar, convinces Balthasar (Eriq Ebouaney), an Ethiopian astronomer, and Gaspar (Stefan Kalipha ), a skeptical translator, to journey with him to Judah where a celestial event is scheduled to take place to herald the birth of a powerful new king. They collect gifts to take along on the long trip.
Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown) directs this version of the familiar Christian story of the birth of Jesus. Unfortunately, while beautifully photographed, it is slowly paced and rather uninspiring. The traditional screenplay by Mike Rich (The Rookie, Finding Forrester) does do one astonishing thing: it makes Joseph a more mysterious and engrossing character than Mary. Forced to fill in the details about this good man, he comes up with many telling moments which prove his kindness and his willingness to risk all for Mary and the Divine plan for his new family.
In the screenplay, Joseph purchases back Mary's family's donkey after the Romans have taken it away. He courageously chooses to stand by Mary even though it means that he becomes a pariah in Nazareth. In one of the few humorous lines in the drama, Joseph and Mary are leaving Nazareth to register in the census ordered by Herod. Mary's childhood friends and others turn away or mumble about them as they pass through town. Joseph wryly observes: "They will miss us." On the long trip to Bethlehem, he gives his own food to the donkey that is carrying Mary.
In contrast, once Mary has received her marching orders from Gabriel, she carries on without much emotion. Perhaps she is doing just an excessive amount of pondering things in her heart. The Three Magi, bickering along the way to Bethlehem, only seem to be there to provide comic relief. The shepherds do show up at the manger after the baby is born, led by an incredibly bright light in the sky that, we thought, surely would attract Herod's spies as well.
It's hard not to over-analyze such a familiar story, to test it against the Biblical accounts and the ones Christians have heard and seen in countless Sunday School Christmas pageants. A big theatrical movie like this should do more than recreate the familiar; it should arouse our emotions in a vital way and bring us in touch with the power of this birth story.
To its credit, The Nativity Story does show that Mary and Joseph were peasants who lived in poverty under the oppression of Roman rule. The glimpses into the simplicity of their life together and their growing affection to each other feel true. But after a few moments of childlike wonder during her time with Elizabeth, Mary remains a dim presence in the film. Even the power of her Magnificat is lost when it is simply used as a voiceover coda over the final scenes. Her story was far better told in Franco Zefirelli's Jesus of Nazareth.
But if you are curious about how this story might be experienced from Joseph's point of view; if you want to step into the story and witness these events from the perspective of a good and kind man, then by all means hurry to the theatre.