And yet miraculously, The Nativity Story manages to be solid holiday entertainment, a cuddly crucifix gleaming against the hopes of vampire cynics such as myself, and a fine example of religious tropes and motifs projected without a whiff of controversy or exclusion.
Producers Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey are quick to acknowledge their debt to the Passion of the Christ . “Hollywood recently has chosen to look at faith-based entertainment as a niche that they can … find an audience for,” says Bowen. “But our argument to New Line when trying to convince them to make the big, epic-scale movie that they did was that 200 million Americans is not necessarily a niche.”
The producers are equally speedy to point out the differences between their film and Mel Gibson's divisive snuff flick, saying, “I think this story is better suited frankly [to being] more uplifting.”
The two see the film as a way to connect to a broad swath of Americans who identify themselves as Christians, and they know – with good reason – that a smiling baby Jesus is not likely to rock the boat. According to Godfrey, “Culturally right now people feel a need for something positive in the world, not necessarily a reflection of what's going on in the world.”
Whether in the desert or a biblical village, every scene in the movie is glowing with grandeur. As soon as they got the green light from New Line, Bowen and Godfried began scouting locations.
After taking a trip to Israel to travel the actual route between Nazareth and Bethlehem, the two went scouting to Morocco based on the advice of Ridley Scott, and to Italy, where parts of The Passion were filmed.
The settings are crucial to making The Nativity Story seem biblically foreign, but just as important was the choice of Catherine Hardwicke as director, previously known from her critical hit Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown .
Given the thousands of years of history attached to the story, Hardwicke had the actors focus on how their characters would act as actual people, rather than as the pedestal-warming saints they are often represented as. Hardwicke brought in her experience directing teenage girls realistically, and applied it to her God-knocked protagonist.
“Mary was extremely holy and pious and like a saint even in the first scene. Not that she shouldn't be a wonderful person, but she was a kid too. She was 13-years-old,” says Hardwicke.
Although the Mary of The Nativity Story isn't exactly a Tarantino assassinatrix, she still responds like a thoughtful, actual human, breaking with the history of opaque or melodramatic depictions of the Virgin.
The film was a challenge for Hardwicke during the shoot. “I felt like it was kind of like we got all the plagues, but in a way that's kind of perfect,” she says.
The final product is smooth as a hair on baby Jesus' head, but along the way Hardwicke had to contend with actual babies, animals, sandstorms, crews that spoke seven different languages and a whole river that had to be dammed for a single minute of screen time. The effort seems worthwhile though, considering the movie is going to be screened at the Vatican, where I hear the Nativity Story isn't just a story.
The bubbly Hardwicke sees it as her own little miracle, saying, “I don't know if it's really even sunk in ... I just couldn't even dare to dream about it. Just to see the movie with 7,000 people … I don't know, what do you wear to the Vatican?”
The Nativity Story releases in theaters Dec. 1.