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Welcome to All Movie Talk! In this audio podcast, Samuel Stoddard and Stephen Keller talk about old and new movies, famous directors, historical film movements, movie trivia, and more.

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The Nativity Story

For about the first half hour, my enthusiasm evolved into concern. The Nativity Story, so I hoped, would tell the iconic story of the birth of Jesus in a way that would focus on the emotions of Mary and Joseph as they come to terms with the miraculous news given them by an angel. But when Mary receives the news with rather more stoicism than I would have imagined, I became concerned that the film was missing an opportunity.

As I soon discovered, this was not a weakness but a strength. Gradually, patiently, the film achieves a great power by its quietness -- by starting out subdued and building up from there. In retrospect, the characters seem all the more human for meeting the responsibilities God has given them with faithful resolve, rather than engaging in theatrics right out of the gate for the sake of drama.

We're used to heavyhandedness in the movies, to the point where we sometimes, as was the case with me here, expect it. While it's holding rather nicely, The Nativity Story is not raking in the cash like The Passion of the Christ did, and is there a more heavyhanded film in recent memory than Passion? Not that it's unwarranted -- we're talking about the greatest miracle in history, God incarnate in the flesh as a sacrifice for humanity, after all. But the whole point of the story of the birth of Jesus is that the circumstances were so humble.

The Bible covers the story surprisingly briefly, for something so ingrained our culture, both within and without Christianity. Only two of the four gospels talk about it at all -- however important Jesus' birth may be, moreso is what he did with his life later on. But this makes good material for a movie adaptation of the story, because a movie can be free to be imaginative in reading between the lines. The Nativity Story remains substantially faithful to the outline of the story given by the Bible (with some deviations in certain details), but it elaborates on the culture and realities of life at the time. The Bible, for example, says Mary and Joseph journeyed to Bethlehem. Well, if you think about the geography and the politics of the day and the realities of travel, that journey was probably a pretty tough one, and one of the film's strongest sequences its speculation on the details of it -- of not just the hardships themselves, but in how weathering those hardships together cements the relationship between Mary and Joseph.

Clearly there is great potential for exploring the psychological aspects of the story, particularly of this central relationship. Mary could have been stoned for becoming pregnant out of wedlock, but she's told by an angel that she's conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph, meanwhile, was surely shocked to learn of Mary's pregnancy and thought to leave her, until an angel appeared to him as well. So Joseph claims the child as his own and becomes ostracized himself for it. It was here that the movie started to win me back. The subdued tone portrays the complicated psychology of the situation so much better than a lot of theatrics could. The deep breaths and sideways glances speak so much louder.

And the quiet sets up the end. Joseph is understandably panicked when Mary goes into labor just as they're reaching Bethlehem and there's nowhere for them to stay, and this sets up some tension that ultimately releases with astonishing power, admittedly largely because this story is so meaningful to me personally, but the film makes good on that in a way I did not expect. It understands the inherent importance of the story and that it therefore not be manipulative to be resonant.

For these reasons, I strongly recommend the film to Christians. Will non-Christians find the film worthwhile? It depends, I guess. It's not laden with cynicism, as is the fashion, and it doesn't smack you upside the head like The Passion of the Christ did. But it's a great story well told, about good people trying to do the right thing, and that's pretty universal.

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