"The Nativity Story" is the salve for those frustrated by Hollywood's inability to tell a fine religious story, or at least one in which the main character isn't graphically whipped within inches of his life.
Director Catherine Hardwicke leaves flippant teen angst ("Thirteen," "Lords of Dogtown") behind to tell a warm, spiritual tale -- the prelude to the greatest story ever told -- that's just the tonic for Fox News watchers. Consider it a salvo against the "war-on-Christmas" foot soldiers, as well as a sweetly watchable movie for everyone else.
The "Story" begins under the harsh rule of King Herod (Ciaran Hinds), whose reign is threatened by prophecies written in the Old Testament. The visions say his end will come with the arrival of the Messiah, convincing the king to order every male child 2 years of age and younger to be killed in order to prevent it.
That's the back story to the saga of one poor couple who convince their daughter, Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes), to marry a local man named Joseph (Oscar Isaac). Mary doesn't initially embrace the arrangement, running off temporarily so she can have some time alone to adjust to her new life. She retreats to an olive grove, where she has a vision from the angel Gabriel. She will soon bear a child destined to be humanity's savior, the vision tells her.
Mary doesn't believe her own eyes at first, but she becomes convinced by miraculous news concerning her much older cousin Elizabeth ("The House of Sand and Fog's" Shohreh Aghdashloo).
Just because Mary's faith is affirmed doesn't mean the pregnancy will be a breeze. She must first convince Joseph she became pregnant without straying from him and then deal with the ostracism from strangers.
A lightly comic subplot involves the three wise men who accurately track Mary and Joseph as they make their way to Nazareth for the historic birth.
Screenwriter Mike Rich ("The Rookie") brings a compelling relevance to Mary's struggle. Younger audiences will relate to her plight, while older viewers won't be put off by any jarring anachronisms.
From the detailed settings to the approximated accents, "The Nativity Story" credibly fills in the gaps left by the Gospels, which detail only sparingly the beats of the nativity's back story.
Too often, spiritual sagas mean dealing with paltry budgets and B-level (if you're lucky) actors.
Here, Miss Hardwicke brings her considerable finesse to the project without losing the meaning of Mary and Joseph's journey.
The ending is as gentle and moving as any person of faith could want, even if the project occasionally reflects the slight tug of restraint.
At times, Miss Hardwicke's touch is so light that the film teeters on blandness. But such moments are fleeting, and the picture is consistently lovely to behold.
"The Nativity Story" is just the right present for those who don't want to be preached to by ecoconscious penguins or a politically incorrect journalist from Kazakhstan.
TITLE: "The Nativity Story"
RATING: PG (Some action sequences and mature themes)
CREDITS: Directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Written by Mike Rich.
RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes
WEB SITE: www.thenativity story.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS