The Nativity Story
The Passion of The Christ was an independent movie, paid for entirely out of Mel Gibson's pocket. The Prince of Egypt was an animated film that emphasized the common ground between Jews, Christians and Muslims. The Last Temptation of Christ was a low-budget art-house flick based on a heretical novel.
You would have to go back at least as far as King David, the mid-1980s box-office flop starring Richard Gere, to find another live-action movie produced by a major Hollywood studio and based directly on the Bible. And you would have to go back even further—to the bathrobe epics of the 1960s, at least—to find a mainstream biblical movie that was as blatantly Christian as The Nativity Story.
The film begins by quoting a prophecy, from the Book of Jeremiah, that is said to be troubling King Herod the Great (Ciarán Hinds). We then see Herod and his son Antipas (Alessandro Giuggioli) as they preside over the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. By this point, Mychael Danna's score has invoked the medieval hymn "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," and scenes like these lay out the messianic hope by reminding us that Israel was indeed a "captive" in need of "ransoming."
The movie then jumps back a year and then some to the beginning of the story, as the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) appears to the priest Zechariah (Stanley Townsend) to tell him that his wife Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo) will have a son despite being well past the age of childbearing. Actually, Gabriel does not "appear" to Zechariah, as such; in one of the film's several minor deviations from the Bible, Gabriel reveals only his voice to Zechariah—although, in a nifty special effect, the angel's breath does seem to part the smoke that rises from the altar.
After this, we meet Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a young girl who likes to play and laugh with her friends, but, like the teens of today, she has to cope with oh-so-serious parents—Joaquim (Shaun Toub) and Anna (Hiam Abbass, who really was born in Nazareth!)—who interrupt her fun to remind her to do her chores. (The film imagines that the ancestors of Christ made and sold cheese, which kind of gives a new spin to that old Monty Python line, "Blessed are the cheesemakers!")
Here is where the tension between the film's ancient and modern sensibilities is at its most obvious. Director Catherine Hardwicke spent years as a production designer before she got behind the camera, and her quest for authenticity is all over The Nativity Story's set design, especially when she throws in brief educational cutaway shots of peasants treading grapes or milking goats. But the film also gives Mary and her parents a taste of the intergenerational friction that was a major theme in Hardwicke's previous directorial efforts, Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown—and at times, the interactions within Mary's family feel a tad anachronistic.
There is also a tension of sorts in Mike Rich's screenplay, which oscillates between the need to be faithful to the biblical text, on the one hand, and the freedom to create dramatically compelling characters and scenes, on the other. While Rich trims out some of the dialogue that appears in the Bible, the parts that he keeps are presented almost exactly as written, yet these sections of the film—especially the Annunciation and the restoration of speech to Zechariah—feel rushed and anticlimactic, and are never quite woven into the rest of the drama. Compare the first scene between Mary and Elizabeth, which is straight out of the Gospel of Luke (minus the Magnificat), with their later conversations; it's a little like watching Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, in which the heroes use modern English until they wander into a scene from Hamlet and start talking all Shakespearean.