THE DARK-EYED GIRL, living in ancient Nazareth, arrives home one afternoon. She’s a typical fifteen-year-old, often preoccupied with her friends and with the village’s cutest boy. But on this day, young Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) finds her father (Shaun Toub) standing with a shy, gloomy-seeming fellow, perhaps five years her senior. His name is Joseph (Oscar Isaac), and he is going to be her husband. Mary has no say in this arranged marriage. Nor is she very happy about it. “Why do they force me to marry a man I do not love?” she wonders in voice-over. “It is my life.”

And for three or four all too brief minutes, The Nativity Story is precisely the brave, newfangled religious vision that many of us hoped it would be. Until, of course, the filmmakers get their heads out of the clouds and their noses back into the Bible—and serve up the dullest Sunday school lesson you never wanted to endure.

Talk about bungled opportunities: The Nativity Story is the first mainstream release that owes its existence almost entirely to the 2004 success of The Passion of the Christ and especially to Hollywood’s realization that there’s a vast, untapped audience keen on seeing Scripture-based stories on the big screen. And if only on the strength of its gifted director, McAllen-born, University of Texas—educated Catherine Hardwicke ( Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown), the movie seemed to hold considerable promise. This is a woman who specializes in stories of teenagers rushing uncontrollably into adulthood.

As it turns out, though, The Nativity Story is a case study in why faith and film are so hard to marry—and why the studios’ attempts to reach into the heartland and connect with Christian audiences are almost certainly doomed to irrelevancy. Sticking closely to the gospels of Luke and Matthew, the film drops us into ancient Judea, where the ruthless King Herod (Ciarán Hinds) lives in fear that the prophesied Messiah is going to rise up and destroy him. We’re introduced to the childless priest Zechariah (Stanley Townsend), who is visited in the temple by an angel of God and is told that his wife, Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo), despite her advanced age, will soon be able to conceive. We also follow Mary as she is visited by the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig), who tells her that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and that she will give birth to the son of God.

When I spoke to Hardwicke last month, she told me that after first reading Mike Rich’s screenplay, she didn’t think she was the right person to bring this very straightforward treatment of the Bible to the screen. Until, that is, she began to think of the iconic figures of the Virgin Mary and Joseph as flesh-and-blood human beings—scared young people trying to explain to themselves and each other an utterly inexplicable pregnancy. It follows that the best moments in The Nativity Story are the ones in which Joseph struggles to decide if he should have his wife stoned for adultery; his dilemma feels deeply recognizable, both universal and timeless. But Joseph’s crisis of faith is hardly enough to hang an entire movie on, and once that crisis passes, The Nativity Story settles into a woefully earnest rut. This is a movie about paragons of virtue behaving really, really virtuously—not exactly the stuff of rip-roaring melodrama.

Didn’t the creators of The Nativity Story realize that, for all the media hype about the rise of the religious right and its insatiable thirst for faith-based entertainment, moviegoers of all ideological stripes simply want to be shown a good time? With The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson delivered a true Hollywood spectacle, filled with grim, German Expressionist imagery and lots of gore splattering across the frame. Even if you resisted the movie’s subtle-as-a-sledgehammer proselytizing and its borderline pathological obsession with physical torture, there was no denying that the director put forth a genuinely distinct vision. The same is true of last year’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which turned C. S. Lewis’s Christian-themed children’s tale into an eye-popping CGI pageant, and especially of Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Madea’s Family Reunion, those wildly loopy, gospel-infused concoctions that combine Oprah Winfrey-style self-help messages with Flip Wilson-style drag queen comedy. These filmmakers may not win any points for tastefulness or subtlety. But they understand that, when it comes to the movies, a little bit of sinfulness goes a long way in getting your saintly message across.

The Nativity Story, meanwhile, feels as if it were produced on the Hollywood assembly line, the one that insists that nothing can be offensive to any segment of the population. The final half of the film charts Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, the couple’s struggle to find lodging before Mary gives birth, the arrival of the Magi, and the family’s eventual flight to Egypt to protect the newborn Jesus from King Herod. But Hardwicke never finds a way to make any of this matter to contemporary audiences (the way, say, Sofia Coppola did in her excellent Marie Antoinette, imagining the French queen to be much like a modern-day Mean Girl), and she never conjures up images that challenge our preconceived notions of what antiquated biblical stories look like.

Religion need not be a sacrosanct topic. Not if you want to make great art (just take a look at James Marsh’s thriller The King from earlier this year). Not even if you want to reach mass audiences (at last count, Gibson’s film had grossed $611 million worldwide). Holly-
wood filmmakers can go on chasing after Christian viewers, but until they learn this essential lesson, they will really just be chasing their own tails.

Saved by Her Works: Hardwicke on DVD.

Even if The Nativity Story disappoints, Catherine Hardwicke—and her two previous features, both available on DVD—should not be dismissed. A longtime production designer who did impressive work on titles like The Newton Boys and Three Kings, Hardwicke, 51, made a tremendous splash with Thirteen (2003), about a wildly reckless teenager (Evan Rachel Wood) in contemporary Los Angeles. The nonstop screaming matches between Wood and Holly Hunter (as her mother) might give you a headache, but few American movies display such empathy for young people in all their screwed-up glory. Even better is the director’s barely seen Lords of Dogtown (2005), a fact-based drama about the California teenagers who brought skateboarding culture into the mainstream in the seventies. Hardwicke photographs the handsome young cast with extraordinary affection. And just try not to giggle as you watch a bleach-blond Heath Ledger sanding a surfboard and speaking with the oddest Valley Boy accent this side of Jeff Spicoli.

Christopher Kelly is the film critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.