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A Way With a Manger 

“Geez, Mary — I hate to tell you this, but it looks like you’re putting on weight.”
Dir. Catherine Hardwicke; feat. Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar Isaac, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ciarán Hinds, Shaun Toub, Hiam Abbass, Alexander Siddig (PG)

Word came recently that New Line intends to craft an original prequel to The Lord of the Rings — this not being The Hobbit. George Lucas churned out three shitty prequels to the greatest film trilogy of all time over the last decade. Hell, even Texas Chainsaw Massacre got a prequel, so is it any surprise that Passion of the Christ, the ginormous faith-based hit, has spawned its own prequel now, too? They’ve called it The Nativity Story instead of The Nativity since — who knows? — maybe they didn’t want it to be confused with the Madeline Stowe-starring TV event that changed lives forever back in 1978. If you don’t know what it’s about based on the title, you’re an idiot. There are Mongolians living in thatch huts right now who know what this movie’s about.

Rather than focus on the brutal death of Jesus Christ at the hands of the Romans, the Jews, or, in a way, a traitor with apparently no bartering skills (Judas totally got screwed), director Catherine Hardwicke (thirteen) and screenwriter Mike Rich (whose brilliant script for Radio must’ve made him a shoe-in for this gig) have opted instead to tell the story of Jesus’s birth and early life. Wait, that’s not right. They don’t even really tell the story of Christ at all, come to think of it. This movie’s all about Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and Joseph (wonderful newcomer Oscar Isaac) and how these two confused people handle angelic visitations, the knowledge that they will raise mankind’s messiah, and, if that’s not enough, a 100-mile journey to Bethlehem to … well, you know the story.

In various ways, it’s been told over and over onscreen and on our radios for the last century. When you think about it, Hollywood and the music industry probably have done more to distort the story than the Vatican ever managed to. If you don’t expect a drummer boy to march up at the birth of Christ, then you weren’t born in America. That’s why it’s actually a bit of a pleasant surprise to be given such a human movie that focuses on, you know, the human element behind the Christ story. Mary doesn’t happily marry Joseph; it’s his strength in the face of adversity that wins her over. Mary feels blessed by her immaculate conception, but is terrified of it. Joseph wonders if he’ll be able to teach his adopted son anything at all. Together, they wonder when they will know he is more than just a boy. It’s actually moving without feeling evangelical, which is hard to do. Even The Passion couldn’t swing that.

Ultimately, though, The Nativity Story just moves too slowly. The danger, because of the movie’s PG rating, is never grave enough. And the ending … well, let’s just say it’s predictable. Past the first two-thirds, nothing new is offered and, when the film’s over, you’re just left wondering how long it will be before some producers get it in their heads to make a sequel to Passion next. Rumor has it Christ pulls a cameo.


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