- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2006

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the entertainment lives of families, provides reviews of the latest movies from a parenting perspective. For more reviews, click on commonsensemedia.org.

‘The Nativity Story’

Rating: PG for some violent content.

Common Sense Media: On. For ages 10 and older.

*** (out of five stars)

Running time: 102 minutes

Common Sense review: “The Nativity Story” tells the familiar biblical tale of Jesus’ birth, but it’s not just about that famous event. The movie takes us inside the characters’ experience — what they’re thinking and how people react to their extraordinary situation. It’s a good lesson in faith and hope even when everything seems strange and confusing.

Filmed in Morocco and Matera — the ancient Italian town where Mel Gibson shot “The Passion of the Christ” — the movie opens with King Herod (Ciaran Hinds) plotting to kill all the male babies in Bethlehem. Then, in a flashback to the previous year, Zechariah (Stanley Townsend) is told by an angelic voice that his aging wife Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo) will bear a son.

In Nazareth, Elizabeth’s young peasant cousin, Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is informed by her parents, Anna and Joaquim (Hiam Abbass and Shaun Toub), that she is to marry Joseph (Oscar Isaac), a carpenter a few years her senior. Troubled over this marriage to “a man I hardly know,” Mary retreats to a nearby grove, where the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) reveals that she’ll give birth to Jesus.

Meanwhile, in Persia, the three Magi set out to follow the star westward as Joseph and Mary begin their own difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Once they finally arrive, Jesus is born — complete with wise men, shepherds, no room at the inn and just a hint of Hallmark cardishness.

With very little source material to go on, it’s true that most of this movie is speculation. Nevertheless, thoughtful direction by Catherine Hardwicke and a strong screenplay by Mike Rich give viewers a glimpse into Mary and Joseph’s emotions.

Miss Castle-Hughes, who wowed audiences in “Whale Rider,” portrays Mary with all the angst you might expect from someone in her situation. Mary and Joseph both feel woefully inadequate to be bringing the son of God into the world, yet they quietly shoulder their responsibilities with hope and faith.

This movie is a little slow in spots, and it’s clearly religious, but its message of peace and good will will resonate with nonbelievers as well.

Common Sense note: Parents need to know that most children probably won’t be clamoring to see this serious biblical drama. It includes references to stoning, rape and the slaughter of innocent people. Mary endures whispers and looks from neighbors. (She’s pregnant but hasn’t had sex — they wonder how this can be.) The take-away message is that hope and faith go a long way toward getting you through life’s rough patches.

Families can talk about how Mary and Joseph react to their extraordinary situation. Even though they had doubts, they didn’t shy away from responsibility. Why do people call on faith and hope when times are rough? Also, when someone trustworthy tells you something that seems unbelievable, should you trust him or her? How realistic do you think the movie’s portrayal of biblical times is? How do children respond to seeing religion on the big screen? How do our modern values color the story of Mary and Joseph?

Sexual content: The story revolves around Mary’s “immaculate conception.” People react harshly to the idea that Mary may have had sex before marriage. Mary and Elizabeth endure painful labor during childbirth.

Violence alert: Mary and Joseph endure a harsh trip to Bethlehem, battling sandstorms, treacherous terrain, hunger, thieves and a snake during a river crossing. Brief scenes of innocents being slaughtered are depicted, and there is mention of Mary being stoned.

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