A closer-than-ever look at Jesus’ birth in “Nativity Story”

Pregnant with meaning

For the director, it was an answer to her mother’s prayers. For the writer, it was an opportunity to take Joseph and Mary off the fireplace mantle and into the living, breathing world.

For the Muslim-born actress playing Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, it was about telling a mythical story that will ignite people’s imaginations.

And for the 16-year-old actress playing Jesus’ mother … well, we don’t know what she thinks because she’s dealing with thoughts of her own impending motherhood.

The Nativity Story” is a movie that tells the account of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem in a way that is surprisingly close (for a mainstream Hollywood movie, anyway) to the brief accounts in the New Testament gospels of Matthew and Luke. The movie, written by Mike Rich and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, depicts a young, dirt-under-the-fingernails Mary, betrothed to a man she doesn’t love, impregnated by the Holy Spirit for reasons she cannot understand (“I am nothing”) and fearful of the idea of being mother to the Son of God.

“You have this girl, she’s 14, rejected and not believed by anyone, including, initially, Joseph,” Hardwicke says. “The people in Nazareth were likely ready to put her to death, to stone her for infidelity. And the angel didn’t leave an instruction manual. Mary has to deal with all these doubts, all these fears and she’s a very young woman. People don’t think about that.”

All of which, as writer Rich notes, makes “The Nativity Story” perfect material for a woman director best-known for another movie about a troubled young girl, “Thirteen.” Hardwicke got the job on the fly after New Line green-lit Rich’s script this past January on the condition it be ready by Christmas. She says the movie is an answer to prayers from both her mother and a minister cousin who had been asking that God send her a movie that’s “spiritual and inspiring.”

Starting young

Growing up attending a South Texas Presbyterian church, Hardwicke knew the story well. She even sang in the church choir until, she says, somebody found out she was tone-deaf. She read the Bible from start to finish when she was Mary’s age and would often build Nativity scenes that would take up more than half of her family’s living room.

“That’s what I got to do on the movie, too, only on a larger scale,” Hardwicke says with a soft laugh.

Hardwicke isn’t active in the church these days, but screenwriter Rich, who characterizes his Christian faith as a “quiet, private one,” regularly attends a nondenominational congregation with his family in Beaverton, Ore. Rich, known for writing sports movies like “The Rookie” and “Miracle,” decided to try a biblically based piece in December 2004, after reading simultaneous Time and Newsweek covers on Jesus’ birth.

“We hear the Nativity story all the time, but the focus is on the events, not the characters,” Rich says. “That interested me. What frightened me was that there’s not much biblical source material, which meant that if I decided to write a script, 80 percent of it would be speculative in nature. Otherwise, we’d have a 15-minute movie.”

Rich spent 11 months researching, learning about Jewish culture in Nazareth, the rule of Herod the Great and his paranoia over prophecies of a coming messiah, as well as the hardships and resentments Jews felt toward the Roman Empire, fueling their yearning for a political savior.In the movie, Herod tells his men to watch for a “man of power.” Only after meeting the Magi — who provide something approximating ofcomic relief to the film — does Herod realize that the messiah of prophecies would take the form of a baby.

Powerful tale

“To me, that’s the revolutionary idea of Christianity, that God would send his son to be born to poor people in a bed of straw,” Hardwicke says. “And, of course, Jesus’ ministry was revolutionary, saying that the blessed were the meek and humble, not the powerful and wealthy. I think that’s what gives a lot of people hope.”

“The Nativity Story” comes with a PG rating, primarily for its mild depiction of Herod’s soldiers massacring young boys in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the perceived messiah. But the movie’s most graphic moment is when Elizabeth, played by Oscar-nominated actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, gives birth to John the Baptist.

“After that scene, I looked at each of the male crew members, the men especially, and their faces were ashen,” the Iranian-born Aghdashloo says. “I loved the scene — and the movie — for being so raw.”

Add screenwriter Rich to that particular hallelujah chorus. He says he’s glad the movie gets away from the cuteness of kids’ Christmas pageants and romantic notions of Nazareth and Bethlehem. He’s also happy that the movie could also remind people what’s behind all the shopping and gift-giving.

“It’s such a hectic season, and it seems to get worse every year,”

Rich says. “It’d be nice if this movie can serve as a two-hour oasis from all that and give families a little time together. Thinking about the courage and faith and determination of these characters deepened my appreciation of the meaning of the season.”

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