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The Nativity Story

It's the most treasured unplanned-pregnancy story of all time -- how a poor Jewish teen-ager and virgin, through divine intervention, bore a child who grew up to jumpstart a major religion. There's been umpteen artistic renderings of the birth of Jesus (not even counting all those grammar-school Christmas pageants), and now Hollywood -- no doubt responding to the recent lively market for explicitly Christian films -- unwraps another version, The Nativity Story.

The film opens briefly in that hazy year between B.C. and A.D., where King Herod, who is presiding over Judea on behalf of Rome, has been rattled by a prophecy that tells of a coming Messiah. We then jump to 1 B.C., where, in Nazareth, Herod's tax collectors hassle the poor residents, among them a young carpenter named Joseph (Oscar Isaac) and his betrothed, the winsome teen-ager Mary (Whale Rider's Keisha Castle-Hughes). A visit from the Holy Spirit tells Mary to get ready -- she's going to bear the Messiah.

Director Catherine Hardwicke, who burst on the scene in 2002 with Thirteen, her harrowing but sympathetic portrait of teen-age girls in trouble, casts Mary and her predicament with an eye toward contemporary narratives. The pregnant Mary gets an earful from her dad, and hairy eyeballs from the neighbors. Likewise, Joseph, the limpid-eyed good guy who has been cuckolded by the Holy Spirit, cycles through a few understandable "bad" emotions -- confusion, hurt, anger -- before taking the high road of Total Support.

Still, Hardwicke faces several challenges -- to make a familiar story interesting; to keep it respectful; and, for today's seasoned viewers, to not gloss up the whole affair like a sentimental Christmas card. The source material is slim, so Hardwicke adds plenty of padding, mostly by repeating a few plot points and dawdling about the village. Combined with our foreknowledge of events, this makes Nativity Story dull in places. A subplot about the three magi and their journey from Persia adds a sprinkle of comic relief and groovy outfits to ogle.

It's understandable that the film feels weakest during its most critical sequence: the birth of Jesus. Culturally, we're so overloaded with both the import of this moment and its myriad representations that it's hard to feel awed or surprised. Hardwicke splits the difference with an unvarnished birth scene (is it a sin to look upon the mucky newborn fresh from Mary's ... ahem ... er?) prettied up a dash of magical cheesiness, a shaft of starlight that illuminates only the Holy Family.

Throughout Hardwicke's film is respectful and low-key, especially given its potential for bad melodrama or cultural button-pushing. Though it's unlikely to engage more than the faithful, this is a basic human story, writ small -- a pair of frightened, poor teen-agers, heading into an uncertain future, buoyed only by faith and family.

Starts Fri., Dec. 1.

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