Mel Gibson may be preparing to unleash his Apocalypto on an unsuspecting public this Friday, but in some small way he's responsible for another sense-assaulting epic currently showing in theaters. Just in time for Christmas, The Nativity Story is a big-budget retelling of the struggles of the virgin mother Mary, the journeys of the Three Wise Men and the perils of wearing burlap dresses and cheap sandals. Gibson's name may not appear anywhere in the credits, of course, but if it weren't for the success of his self-funded pet project The Passion of the Christ a couple of Easters ago, no studio in its right mind would've green-lit something this blandly virtuous.
At least The Passion was not your father's biblical drama. Gibson combined the cheesy atmospherics of an Enigma video with the gore of a splatter film to create a love-it-or-despise-it, red-state/blue-state divining rod. The Nativity, on the other hand, is nothing more than one of those tedious, poorly acted, unconvincing parables you might've napped through while forced to attend Sunday school. Director Catharine Hardwicke has attempted to make the material relevant for a post-Passion audience it's an Engima video crossed with National Treasure but from the moment the passage from Jeremiah 23:5 scrolls across the screen, you know you're in for a cinematic experience about as thrilling as a hygiene filmstrip.
About the only thing that sets The Nativity apart from its forebears the dorky, Charlton Heston-starring religious epics of the '50s is Hardwicke's insistence on filling the cast with non-Caucasian faces and adding a little bit of grit to the surroundings. The story is as it always was: The Virgin Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is told by the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig, wearing a Jeri Curl perm graced by a halo) that she is to bear the son of God in Bethlehem. Her initially doubting husband Joseph (the milky eyed Oscar Isaac) makes the long, arduous journey with his suddenly pregnant wife. Their story is intercut with some awkward, stammering attempts at comedy supplied by the Three Wise Men, as well as some would-be Gladiator-style menace supplied by the goatee-stroking, Messiah-fearful King Herod (Ciaran Hinds).
The music and editing shove you along, telling you what to feel and when: tribal drums for threat, mournful cello for sadness, pan flute for the nookie-free intimacy. The actors certainly aren't any help. The 16-year-old Castle-Hughes showed great promise in Whale Rider, but here she seems too busy trying to master her accent to bother emoting anything as complex as joy, surprise or fear. She and the others mostly sit around bundling herbs, gathering twigs and seasoning goat cheese while they wait for the lame, retro special effects to kick in: booming, reverb-y voices from above, miraculous shafts of light, or see-through angels with their arms outstretched. When they open their mouths, it's a stilted mix of biblical quotes and broken English. At one point, the virgin's mother scolds her: "Mary, the cheese!" If only someone had said the same thing to Hardwicke.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.