Back in high school, where I fancied myself a bit of a class clown, I would often subject friends to jokes that relied on my hi-larious Funny Accent. It wasn’t French, it wasn’t Italian, it wasn’t Yiddish or Bulgarian or Swahili — it was some ungodly mixture of all of the above, a pidgin foreign sub-Arte Johnson mishmash that a much wittier pal of mine dubbed my ”Esperanto accent.” That’s the way the characters talk in The Nativity Story. They speak in Serious Ancient Movie-ese — a vaguely Middle Eastern, vaguely Borat-ish sound in which the word God comes out as ”goat,” gift is ”geeft,” dark is ”dod-k,” and so forth. The accents are meant to carry a ring of authenticity, but given that the mostly Jewish characters are speaking English, rather than Hebrew or Aramaic, you really do have to wonder what difference it makes that the stiff-backed dialogue is uttered like something you would expect to hear at an international fusion yogurt restaurant.
The accents, like the rest of The Nativity Story, are a come-on, a token of middlebrow highmindedness. They’re Bible-movie decor, like the dirty rumpled robes and head scarves, the rocky-road villages. Dear God, it is all so respectable and dull! I went into The Nativity Story, which is drawn from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, as a fan of the director, Catherine Hardwicke, who has made two startlingly close-to-the-bone youth-rebel pictures, the brilliant, lacerating Thirteen and the ’70s skate-punk fantasia Lords of Dogtown. I figured, or hoped, that Hardwicke might apply her antennae for the troubles of teen misfits to the tale of Mary and Joseph, and when we first glimpse the face of Keisha Castle-Hughes, the 16-year-old New Zealand star of Whale Rider (she’s like a tough-nut Jennifer Beals), there is much promise in her olive-skinned, beatific yet sloe-eyed look — the image of an ancient statue that has come to life. In Nazareth, Mary is told that a husband, an eager carpenter named Joseph (Oscar Isaac), has been chosen for her, and her prickly, sullen response feels bold, right. This is the way to draw an audience to a Bible spectacle — to humanize and, yes, modernize Mary, lending her a streak of vibrant stubbornness, the quality she’ll need to carry the son of God in her womb.
To our surprise and disappointment, though, Castle-Hughes never finds another shade, another nuance — heck, another facial expression — within that stoic riot grrrl of Judaea resolve. The old Hollywood biblical epics had a kitsch eroticism, with actors like Charlton Heston and Hedy Lamarr turning scripture into a chaste pinup parade. The Nativity Story, as if embarrassed to fall into that trap, reduces its heroine, after a few token rebel gestures, to a saintly cipher. Having learned of her arranged union, Mary, according to the film’s press notes, ”takes refuge in an ancient olive grove to collect her thoughts,” and if ever I wished that press notes were less accurate, it’s here: Mary spends the entire movie collecting her thoughts. In that olive grove, she’s visited by the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig), who looks disarmingly like Cat Stevens as he delivers the prophecy that Mary will give birth to the Messiah, and that her cousin Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is about to become miraculously pregnant as well.
If Scorsese’s wrenching, faith-splattered The Last Temptation of Christ portrayed Jesus’ relationship with his divinity as a profound human struggle, then surely Mary, as a mere mortal, a naive and parochial village girl, might greet the knowledge of her holy destiny with confusion, or even a note of distress. But no: Hardwicke and Castle-Hughes make her a coolly blank and passive soul. The movie that results isn’t inept, but it’s about as dramatic as a wall calendar. When the dastardly egotist King Herod (Ciarán Hinds) orders Mary and Joseph, along with everyone in their region, to return to the place of their birth for a census, the couple, now united, must journey to Bethlehem. And journey they do: on horseback, through deserts and valleys, along beaches. Yet that’s all that happens. They ride. It’s a trek to test the patience of the faithful, relieved only by the three magi, who are like infomercial astrologers.
Hollywood now has a paradoxical relationship with evangelical America. The movie industry is eager to beckon and serve Christian viewers, yet as long as it thinks of those viewers as another market slice, a demo, it may end up pandering to them with cautious and stultifying reverence. The Nativity Story is a film of tame picture-book sincerity, but that’s not the same thing as devotion. The movie is too tepid to feel, or see, the light.