Wednesday, 21 May 2008

DVD: The Nativity Story

Lowdown: The uninspiring tale of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth.
Those who know me will probably ask – “Nativity? You?”
Well, yes, nativity and me, for a couple of good reasons: First, I do aspire to learn more on the subject. Even if there are other areas more worthwhile me spending my time on, it’s still fairly interesting to see what the fuss is about and how it has evolved in people’s perceptions. Being that many if not most of the people in my immediate surrounding consider themselves Christian and celebrate Christmas, to one extent or another, having more familiarity with their customs is probably worthwhile.
Besides, The Nativity Story virtually guarantees a laugh; why should I prevent myself from having a good time?
The answer to that last question would primarily consist of the rather obvious observation that as a film, The Nativity Story sucks.
The plot has a major part in its failure. Simply put, it is not a plot that would carry any film worthy of its title, and the only reason why they’ve made it into a film is the “holy” aroma attributed to the story by more than a billion of this planet’s human inhabitants (official records say there are around two billion Christian born people, but I give them the benefit of doubt as being born to Christian parents does not necessarily make you a Christian in my book).
Set in the land of Israel of 2000 years ago, the film starts by showing us that times are tough: Israel is under Roman occupation (actually, Israel didn’t exist at the time; it was wiped out long before, and only the southern kingdom of Judea existed). Herod is the local king/messenger for the Roman Empire, and the film goes to great lengths to show how ruthless he is towards everyone weaker than him. There’s this scene where Herod supervises the construction of Masada, but in typical crap film fashion doesn’t really tell us what Masada is. What the film does tell us about Herod is that he loves his tax income.
The other side of the film’s working environment is the little people. The film portrays the people of Israel as hard working. They speak English in a contemporary Israeli accent, they engage in Aramaic whenever whatever it is that they’re saying is clear enough to avoid subtitles, they pray in Hebrew, they seem to be of Middle Eastern appearance (skin tone wise), and they’re dressed in gowns and such that would be quite an overkill for Israeli weather but look a lot like what orthodox Jews wear today. While the film tries to expose us to their way of life and their survival hardships, what we do see is a rather clinical interpretation: for a time in which most kids didn’t make it to two and no running water was available, everything is way too smooth. Want to convince me with authenticity? Show them going to the toilet, please.
Eventually we’re introduced to Mary, portrayed by that annoying actress from Whale Rider. I can’t say much about Mary from the film other than attesting to her having just a single expression on her face almost throughout the film. One day, while at an olive grove, some trees shake, this bird flies, and suddenly an angel is telling Mary she’s about to be pregnant with god’s child. People around her do have a problem with her pregnancy, but her would be husband Joseph doesn’t – he meets the same angel while dreaming and receives an adequate explanation.
The rest, as they say, is history. Or is it?
Normally, I would avoid comparing the book to the film, judging each on their own as both are limited by their medium. However, in the case of The Nativity Story this separation is made very hard by the shallowness of the plot and by the fact it heavily relies on visions for plot advancement. Besides, the entire story would be pointless if it wasn't for the book telling us what happened to Jesus after he was born, thus rendering the film unable to stand on its own.
Let’s be realistic here: if I was to say that I had a similar vision to Mary, or Joseph for that matter, I would be ridiculed; and rightly so. If we were all to regard what we see in our dreams as real the world would be in chaos, and if everything in our dreams was real then most of this world’s men would be partnered with Angelina Jolly. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the story’s premises are so stupid you just have to marvel at the way it tries to get away with the story of the world’s first ever IVF, two thousand years before IVF was invented.
Another weakness with The Nativity Story is its rather uncreative and template like way of going about. Characters are single dimensional, everyone is either good or bad, godly visions are always signaled by this flying bird, and comic relief is thrown in from time to time to make the ordeal flow.
Talking about comic relief, this is supplied mostly through the three wise man who journey from far away east to greet Jesus at his birthplace. As everyone should know, the only thing the bible says about the eastern visitors is that they were men from the east; the common interpretation of them being three kings and such is folklore, but not scripture, based. The film settles with making them three astrologers who follow a constellation of three “stars” to track Jesus’ birth, when the tree stars merge: Jupiter (a planet, not a star, last I’ve heard), Mars (another planet), and a third mysterious star. Thing is, with stars/planets, we - 21st century people - should be easily able to track their historical trajectories; this mysterious star that joined hands with Jupiter and Mars should have been easily identified, and the fact it hasn’t tells something about the story’s overall credibility. As goes for the entire concept of following stars, given that stars tend to move all over the sky due to earth’s rotation. And since when does Christianity endorse astrology?
There seems to be more creative freedom taken by the film other than those three astrologers. According to the film, but not according to my recollection of the Jesus story, Herod was worried about the prophecy concerning the arrival of a new king and was trying to track and murder Jesus; on his way, he killed all of Bethlehem’s babies. This doesn’t really fit well with the more credible account of Herod meeting the adult Jesus and not killing him as well as with the fact that Herod didn’t really have any reason to fear Jesus, who was pretty powerless during his time. Besides, those three stars joining hands to shine a light directly on Jesus' birthplace should have been enough for a blind person to track this much sought after baby, let alone a king with an army.
In short, the story is pretty thin. The story of an office person on an ordinary day would be more inspiring than the story of the nativity. Combine the uninspiring storytelling and the bad acting to the rather eventless plot that defines new limits of suspension disbelief, and you can see why The Nativity Story is a bad film. It did, however, make me laugh – laughs of that “it’s so bad it’s good” type. I don’t think the laughs were intentional, though.
Worst scenes: There’s a multitude of them, but the most annoying ones are those where the angel shows up in visions. He looks like a poof, and for some reason he’s always accompanied by this bird doing a flyby. How can I put it? When a bird does a similar flyby over my head, I worry about droppings.
Technical assessment: The filmmakers have opted to sacrifice picture quality in their bid for that authentic biblical look, that is - a high contrast, desaturated picture. Sound is pretty ordinary.
Overall: The Nativity Story, badly made as it is, will probably only succeed in raising doubts in the minds of believers. In the age of moon landings and mobile phones, the unimaginative nature of the miracles of old is clearly exposed.
1.5 out of 5 stars.

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