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For Christians, Christmas is a time to think about Chapter One of the Greatest Story Ever Told. But at the movies, the holiday is usually celebrated with forgettable, frivolous features like the latest episode in the Santa Clause series and heavy-hitting, Oscar-contending dramas like Babel and the upcoming Dreamgirls.

This year, however, thanks to New Line Cinema, director Catherine Hardwicke, and screenwriter Mike Rich, The Nativity Story is surprising holiday moviegoers with a substantial Christmas message. The film takes its subject seriously, adhering closely to the details of the scriptural text and with a remarkable attention to period detail. The film feels authentic in its dusty, simple design, and in the complexion of its cast.

And the biggest surprise of all? This version of The Nativity Story brings the character of Joseph to life. Through a nuanced performance by Oscar Isaac, we're blessed with a detailed portrait of a virtuous man stepping up to accept enormous responsibility. We see his pride shaken as his fiancé e becomes pregnant by a mystery. We see him fearful and dismayed as the community becomes suspicious. We feel his angst as he wonders if he can teach the Son of God anything. And then we sense his fears as he travels with Mary back to his crowded hometown where nobody is willing to help them, and they end up in a stable.

But The Nativity Story is also surprising some Christian critics by just how far short it falls from what it might have been.

I was excited to see a chapter of Christ's story shared without apology or dismaying distortions, and yet I've rarely encountered a version of the story that failed to inspire wonder, excitement, and awe the way this one fails. It all seems so dutiful and ...

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December 2006

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