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‘Nativity Story’ feels like Sunday-school drama

Uninspiring and condescending in tone, this is one lesson to avoid. By John Hartl

Treacherous King Herod gets all the best lines in “The Nativity Story,” a solemn, uninspired Biblical drama in which everyone else (including recent Oscar nominees Keisha Castle-Hughes and Shohreh Aghdashloo) seems to be posing for posterity.

Ciaran Hinds, who was so persuasive last year as Julius Caesar in HBO’s excellent “Rome,” has the Herod role, which he turns into a scary portrait of power run amok. Fearful of losing his throne, ruthless enough to demand that children be sacrificed because of his paranoid visions, he’s a monster with a semi-civilized facade. Too bad he has so little screen time.

The other actors are stuck playing non-entities. Joseph (puppyish Oscar Isaac) and Mary (Castle-Hughes from “Whale Rider”) are passive puppets, barely recognizable as people. When they’re confronted with the fact that Mary is somehow both pregnant and a virgin, they seem slightly chagrined. Yet nothing, aside from a few nasty stares from the neighbors, comes of their embarrassment.

The new movie is being promoted as an earthier vision of Mary, although Pier Paolo Pasolini took a similar approach in his classic “Gospel According to St. Matthew” four decades ago. The major difference: Pasolini began his movie quite bluntly with expressive closeups of Mary and a confused-looking Joseph. It was as if Pasolini had announced from frame one: this is a film about a leap of faith.

“The Nativity Story” delays this moment until much later. Director Catherine Hardwicke (“thirteen”) starts her film by using Herod’s slaughter of male babies as an action-flick curtain-opener, a way to grab attention before the rest of the film goes into flashback mode. The massacre seems to come out of nowhere, and the needless exploitation of it establishes a condescending tone.

Presented in context, this episode can have real power, as Pasolini, George Stevens, Franco Zeffirelli and other filmmakers have demonstrated in the past. But Hardwicke and her screenwriter, Mike Rich (“The Rookie”) consistently fail to emphasize the meaning of key events.

Too much of the film suggests Sunday-school bathrobe drama. Ashdashloo, who plays Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, tries to make an impact, but her part is small. The wise men are reduced to cute comic-relief squabblers. The shepherds are treated as afterthoughts.

Filmed in Morocco and Italy, “The Nativity Story” does benefit from handsome wide-screen cinematography by Elliott Davis, but any sense of 1st Century authenticity is undercut by a score that makes use of overly familiar Christmas melodies. Reminiscent of the kind of shopping-mall background music that becomes inescapable every December, the score pulls you right out of the movie.

It may be that the subject itself isn’t appropriate for a feature-length treatment. The most effective Nativity films are usually the ones that treat it as part of a larger canvas. It took 12 minutes for the silent version of “Ben-Hur” to deal with Jesus’ birth, and about 6 minutes for the 1959 remake. Pasolini, Zeffirelli and Stevens were also wary of inflating a short story into an epic.