Motherhood is a rum thing to begin with but motherhood in the mid-teens, in superconservative ancient Nazareth, engaged to a man you’ve never met and who is definitely not the father of the baby — well, then it would be time to hit the panic button, if only such a thing had existed.

But then, we’re not talking about any young mother but the Mother — Mary — who has reigned from the uppermost throne of motherhood for over 2,000 years. Mid-teen or not, she embraced the whole incredible fate as hers, made a home with her husband Joseph and raised the baby Jesus — which, surprisingly, is a slice of biblical history that’s largely been enshrouded in mystery.

Compared to what we know about her son, Mary is minute, considering her vast influence. Even cinema tended to circumvent the issue of her youth and the Annunciation, and when she has appeared (as in “The Passion of Christ”) it’s as the middle-aged mother of the grownup Jesus, who had to bear the terrible pain of watching her son die.

The Nativity Story
Director Catherine Hardwicke
Run Time 100 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens Dec. 1, 2007

In “The Nativity Story,” however, her joyous, closeup face (played by “Whale Rider” star Keisha Castle-Hughes, who, interestingly, became pregnant at 16 right after the making of the film) splashes across the screen. During the opening scenes, Mary holds you captivated as a wondrously energetic, dark beauty in the full flush of young womanhood: never has the Virgin seemed so freshly alive, so . . . real.

For this, the credit goes to Catherine Hardwicke, who gave the world “Thirteen,” the definitive low-teen movie of 2003 followed by the Venice-Beach-surfer-boys-rule-tale “Lords of Dogtown.” If anyone was going to depict Mary (and Joseph) as they possibly could have been as teenagers, Hardwicke seems like an ideal choice. Not that one expected Mary to sniff glue or Joseph to cruise down the streets of Nazareth on a board under his sandaled feet, but with Hardwicke at the helm, any excess earnestness was probably going to be replaced by a bit of revved-up soundtrack and in-your-face edge.

Unfortunately, that turns out not to be the case — “The Nativity Story” is a disappointment, if an understandable one. As an almost-major American filmmaker, it’s the better part of discretion on Hardwicke’s part not to mess with the Mother. Consequently, the film is safe, sincere and free of complexities. It’s gorgeously shot with grand-scale production values that include an impressive open-set built in the Italian countryside and another in Morocco, but content-wise, it’s a gentle seesaw between straight-faced biblical seriousness and the occasional attempt at injecting some modernity.

The fresh-faced and dewy-eyed Castle-Hughes carries the film with her youthful fire and inherent passion; her Mary is a tad rebellious and independent, but still reverent of her parents and her community. She ponders over whether she can actually love her betrothed (a bond that her parents have decided) without first getting to know what he’s like “in his heart.” On the other hand, she accepts the Annunciation as God’s will, and shifts her stance from free-thinking individual to devout believer, even as she endures the cold stares and taunts of the villagers.

An unwed teenage mother doesn’t go over well even now, but back then the implications were literally lethal. Being stoned to death was a common punishment, as was being banished from the community to fend for oneself in the desert. Both Mary’s parents (Hiam Abbass and Shaun Toub) and Joseph (Oscar Isaac) initially refuse to believe her conception is immaculate, but Joseph changes his tune after a dream encounter with the angel Gabriel. He persuades Mary’s parents to accept their daughter and swears to protect his bride and the unborn child as the couple travel to Bethlehem in a long and grueling journey that forms the visual crux of the film.

The couple cross rivers, scale mountains and trek across the desert. Historically, this was in order to escape the wrath of evil King Herod (Ciaran Kinds), who had heard that a savior was about to be born and ordered the massacre of all baby boys. But Hardwicke treats the trip almost like a honeymoon, in a reality-TV kind of way. The hardships they encounter on the road bring Mary and Joseph closer: They really get to know and trust each other — all the stuff in fact, that would send a TV couples’ counselor into a paroxysm of joy. Having trouble? Hit the desert and get to Bethlehem!

There’s some savvy comic relief provided by the Three Wise Men (Nadim Sawalha, Eriq Ebouaney, Stefan Kalipha) that only enhances that slightly schizophrenic feeling that this is a film that doesn’t want to offend anyone (it premiered at the Vatican), but at the same time, wishes to keep that Hardwicke label, somewhere on the hem of its unwieldy cape. A little bit like finding a metallic skull accessory stashed in a church-manger diorama.

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