Nothing shakes up the film industry like an unexpected hit. Films marketed to Christians were strictly a direct-to-video proposition until Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ filled theaters a few years back. Now plenty of studios have a wing devoted to spiritual endeavors. For better or worse, however, nobody wants the controversy of Gibson's Passion, so most of those films will probably look like The Nativity Story, a filmed Sunday-school lesson that favors a dry, by-the-Book approach over even a suggestion of dramatic interpretation. It's more Christmas pageant than movie.
Nativity Story does have some cinematic qualities to recommend it. Far from the mean L.A. streets of thirteen and Lords Of Dogtown, director Catherine Hardwicke has a keen feel for some of the day-to-day routines of life in the Middle East at the time of Jesus' birth, when being without money meant constant insecurity and constant work. In the first half of the film, nearly everyone toils at all times—farming, cooking, tending animals—because doing otherwise would mean starving.
Maybe that's why, when the miracles start happening, everyone seems too exhausted to care. As Mary, Whale Rider star Keisha Castle-Hughes is a shrug and a "whatever" away from blowing off the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) when he shows up to give her the news of her miraculous pregnancy. There's little urgency to her flight to Bethlehem with Joseph (Oscar Isaac), and the film eventually spends most of its time just getting the pieces of its nativity set into place: Shepherds? Check. Wise men? Check. Star? Check. Angry King Herod? You got it.
It's all attractively shot, but nothing about it feels the least bit miraculous until the well-staged finale. Pious parents can feel good about plopping their kids in front of the DVD for Christmases to come, but they'll probably want to wander off and make popcorn balls or something.