When news about The Nativity Story (opening Dec. 1) first started circulating, the welcomest bit of information was that Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) would play the Virgin Mary. What a stroke of casting genius, I thought. The winsome Castle-Hughes had the right combination of age, appearance, and camera-friendly charisma.

Stepping Out of the Wings

Stepping Out of the Wings

But what is most memorable about The Nativity Story is not its portrayal of Mary (though Castle-Hughes plays her part admirably). The movie's real achievement is its narrative exposition of what Matthew meant when he wrote that Joseph was a "just man" (KJV). My Greek lexicon singles out Matthew 1:19 to suggest that here "good" or "honest" would be preferred translations. In any case, he was a man of virtue.

Mike Rich's (Radio, The Rookie, Finding Forrester) script imagines for us how Joseph might have put his virtue into practice.

Played by Oscar Isaac—a graduate of the Juilliard School and a hot young actor in both film and theater—Joseph is self-sacrificing. One telling invention of the screenplay occurs when Mary's father Joaquim cannot pay his full tax, and the Roman enforcers take his donkey as partial payment. (This is a tragedy because Joaquim needs the donkey to make a living.) The generous Joseph buys Joaquim's donkey back from a Roman who is going to kill it. (A donkey is no use to a warrior.) Joseph gives the donkey to Mary to return to her father.

Castle-Hughes's Mary is ambivalent, confused. She has nothing against Joseph, but she is hardly excited about the idea of spending her life with the man her parents have decided she will marry. She and her friends have been playfully flirting with another boy, but Joseph is the one her father has chosen for her. Now, in rescuing the donkey, Joseph proves his exceptional kindness.

Later, when Mary becomes pregnant, Joseph chooses to share her shame. At every turn, whether dealing with the disapproving stares of the Nazarenes, the dangers on the road to Bethlehem, or the threat of an impending birth without a birthplace—Joseph is shown to be the watchful protector of his wife and her unborn son. The movie's best moment, and also its most humorous, occurs when the longsuffering Joseph leads Mary and the donkey past disapproving neighbors as they leave Nazareth for Bethlehem. "They're really gong to miss us," he quips, deflecting their censoriousness and lifting Mary's spirits in a single stroke.

In one telling scene along the long trek to Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary eat their daily bread ration. Then we see Joseph slipping part of his share to the famished donkey. This is Joseph as Francis of Assisi, loving people and beasts alike.

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One never knows when the Romans will come tax collecting

One never knows when the Romans will come tax collecting

Precarious Existence

Life for the people and beasts of The Nativity Story is portrayed realistically, at least in the first leg of the story. Life is precarious. Existence is fragile. One never knows when crops might fail or Roman tax collectors might seize your assets.

The rough texture of the characters' clothing is palpable on the big screen. Mary does not wear the refined veil of the painterly tradition.

The rhythms of agricultural life—treading the winepress, picking olives, harvesting grain—frame the storytelling. Faith and its rituals also play an important role. Prayer, teaching children their prophetic heritage, circumcising and naming newborn males—these things fit naturally into the rhythms of life.

This realism is the result of screenwriter Rich's careful research and the commitment from director Catherine Hardwicke to make the movie as true to first-century life as possible.

Unfortunately, that makes the film's departures from history even more jolting. The magi are portrayed as three kings (rather than simply members of a Persian priestly elite), and their arrival is choreographed to match that of the adoring shepherds. But almost all biblical scholars place the arrival of the magi somewhere between one and two years after Jesus' birth.

Rich told CT Movies' Mark Moring that he wanted to tell the story of the "quintessential Nativity scene." So the movie narrates the story of the magi and their journey in parallel with the events that move Mary and Joseph toward Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus. For literary reasons, the two story lines peak at the same point. But Matthew and Luke report these stories separately; the Bible is not bound by romantic literary conventions.

Love Conquers History

Yet it is romantic conventions in which The Nativity Story deals. When does Mary's growing appreciation of Joseph's kindness turn to affection? After Joseph rescues Mary from a water snake, and he is resting by the riverbank, Mary takes Joseph's travel-blistered feet in her hands and bathes them tenderly. At this moment, Mary seems to stop tolerating this man of boundless good intentions and start loving him back.

Above all, 'The Nativity Story' is a love story

Above all, 'The Nativity Story' is a love story

The Nativity Story is a love story. And a love story demands a happy ending. But neither Matthew nor Luke is recording a love story. For them, the infancy narratives are an important part of authenticating Jesus' messiahship as foretold in the Hebrew Scriptures. The visions of the angelic messengers are correlated to birth announcements made to Sarah and Manoah's wife. Mary and Elizabeth's unexpected pregnancies, each miraculous in its own way, are correlated to the conceptions of Isaac, Samson, and Samuel. The fulfilling of ancient prophecies, the repetition of paradigmatic moments in Hebrew history, and the impenetrable genealogies are integral to the Gospel writers' purposes. The ecstatic utterances of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon parallel the song of Hannah. The homage of the magi and the escape to Egypt have more prophetic than dramatic significance. All these things are evidence of who Jesus is and is to be.

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For the Gospel writers, then, the Jesus story does not climax in the stable. It climaxes in the Cross. Thus, the horrendous slaughter of Bethlehem's children is not out of place in Matthew. Nor is it primarily an atrocity perpetrated by a vain and unstable tyrant. It is, rather, an attack on God's anointed.

But since The Nativity Story of necessity focuses on the birth narratives alone, and because it chooses to explore the personal dynamics of two young adults caught up in the greatest moment in history, it cannot do what the Gospels do. It consequently shies away from giving full weight to Herod's satanic massacre of Bethlehem's babies. Matthew responds to Herod's wickedness by quoting the weeping prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted. . . ." For the Gospel writer, there is no resolution: "She refused to be comforted, because they are no more."

I have no doubt that the historical Joseph and Mary lived with the specter of that bloodshed for the rest of their days. This film, on the other hand, runs from the horror and quickly reverts into "Silent Night"—happy ending mode. The shift from the realism of Mary and Joseph's life in Nazareth to the romantic iconography of the Nativity scene seems to be a surrender to the romantic structure of the plot. The gritty reality of village life in first-century Palestine is abandoned in favor of Christmas-card sentimentality, with wise men, shepherds, animals, and the holy family posing as if they were ceramic figurines on your mantelpiece.

Such departures from realism do not doom The Nativity Story any more than fanciful scenes with the angel Clarence doom It's a Wonderful Life. The Nativity Story is not boldly realistic like The Passion of the Christ. It is, however, a heart-warming reconstruction of the growing and tender relationship of history's most famous couple. And unlike The Passion, it has the promise of a long life on DVD, as it becomes a family favorite to watch Christmas after Christmas.

David Neff is editor of Christianity Today and executive editor of Christian History & Biography.