When you're talking about film adaptations of the story of Christ's birth, the old rubric "if you've seen one, you've seen them all" just does not apply. That is especially the case with The Nativity Story, a truly wonderful film that conveys great spiritual power, even as it brings home the humanity of Mary and Joseph to a degree few of its predecessors ever even attempted. Keisha Castle-Hughes is wonderful as young Mary, but I tend to look upon this film as Joseph's story, and Oscar Isaac is more than up to the task of bringing this humble carpenter to vivid life.
The Nativity Story basically tells the story of Mary and Joseph from the time Mary is betrothed and then finds out she is to give birth to God's Son up through the time of Jesus' birth and the family's evacuation to Egypt. It does an exceptional job of humanizing Mary and Joseph. At 14, Mary is on the brink of womanhood, and early on we are treated with several moments showing us a glimpse of the normal child she was. Her sudden betrothal to Joseph is not something she welcomes, but we see it as a reality of family survival in those troubled times under the double domination of Herod and Rome. When the angel appears to her, she accepts the good news he brings - yet she doesn't completely believe it until she finds her much older cousin Elizabeth carrying the child who would be Jesus' messenger. Her most trying time comes when she returns home. A lot of adaptations tend to gloss over this part. Put yourself in her place, though - she's a 14-year-old girl, betrothed to a good man, who returns home with a child she claims to have been miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit. Her story was even less plausible back then than it would be today. Suddenly, she is a pariah of sorts, looked down upon by all who know her, her very future very much in doubt.
The thing I loved most about this film is the depth of its portrayal of Joseph. All too often, Joseph gets short shrift in the story of Christ's birth, but this film has one of the best characterizations of Joseph I've ever seen. Obviously mortified by Mary's pregnancy, he refuses to accuse her (thus very probably saving her life). Even after he is visited by an angel and told that Mary is indeed carrying the Son of God, it takes a lot of courage for him to take Mary as his wife and to claim a child that is not his. On the long and hard road to Bethlehem, we see many small yet all-encompassing examples of his sacrifice for Mary and the Child. After their arrival and frantic effort to find a room, it is Joseph who delivers the child himself. The bond that grows between he and Mary is one of this film's many great strengths.
The portrayal of the three Wise Men from the East is especially interesting, as they sometimes serve up a few bits of comic relief. One of them, for example, is less than enthused about actually traveling to Judea to find the child whose birth they have predicted based upon their study of the stars (with the star of Bethlehem being attributed to the rare convergence of three heavenly bodies). It really was a hard journey, requiring several months of travel across deserts and mountains. By conveying their journey basically in its entirety, this film produced in me a new level of respect for these men and their significance in the story of Jesus' birth.
The final half hour of the film pretty much blew me away. The light of the Star shining down on the manger, the depiction of the shepherds, the arrival of the Magi - it all really brings home the significance of this newborn baby. As if that isn't enough, the story also features some subtle and profound foreshadowing of later events in Jesus' life. For Christians, the film is truly a blessing, but even nonbelievers should appreciate the poignancy of the story, the fine acting, and the excellent cinematography - and everyone should welcome the opportunity to glance into the rearview mirror of time and get a sense of life as it was just over two thousand years ago.