This movie retells a story familiar through film, stage, and tradition here in America, the story of the first Christmas.
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In the village of Nazareth, the young woman Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is a daughter in a struggling family. They barely make enough to eat and pay the taxes when the Roman soldiers come through town. That's why when Joseph the carpenter (Oscar Isaac) proposes a marriage with Mary, her father quickly accepts. While she is not happy with the arranged marriage, her life gets much more complicated when the Angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) appears and tells her she will bear the Messiah.
Meanwhile, three Magi are studying the night sky. As they see three stars coming together, they conclude that prophecy is being fulfilled and a great king is being born. They set out to find this child. And King Herod (Ciaran Hinds) continues his paranoia over his thrown. The same prophecies worry him. Is there a new threat to his throne?
When a movie tells a familiar story, it faces an uphill battle. It must find a way to draw the viewer into the events even though they know the outcome. This movie almost succeeded for me. I was pulled in most of the time watching these characters from the Biblical story brought to life. The friends I saw it with loved it and were deeply moved by it. At times, however, I found the low budget a bit of a distraction.
The producers of the film try to present the story with as little flash as possible. Since the story is set 2000 years ago, it mostly works. I did spot the occasional matte painting in the background, but was willing to forgive this "low tech" approach. What did bother me were scenes at the end that needed extras. When Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem, the town looks more like a ghost town then a village with no room for them to stay. Gabriel appears solo to the shepherds. I was looking forward to seeing if the chorus of angels sang or spoke since this is an often messed up part of the Biblical tale. (Luke 2 says the angels spoke.)
There was much to enjoy about the movie, however. The costumes and sets were wonderful. I am no historical scholar, but everything looked accurate to me. Also accurate was the depiction of the times in which the story takes place. As modern Christians, we often forget the harsh treatment from the Romans. Mary faces possible stoning for becoming pregnant before she is married. And their friends and neighbors ostracize both her and Joseph.
The performances are also great. I knew two of the actors from other things (Alexander Siddig from Deep Space 9 and Shohreh Aghdashloo from 24) yet I recognized neither and was able to accept them as their Biblical characters. Herod is menacing with a touch of mental illness thrown in. The three Magi are lots of fun and provide some light moments with their scenes. Absolutely perfect are Keisha Castle-Hughes and Oscar Isaac as Mary and Joseph. They are likable, have good chemistry, and do a great job showing their characters' struggles.
The ending of the movie is very moving as the shepherds and Magi arrive to pay tribute to Jesus. While I agree this probably isn't Biblical, the timeline isn't exactly clear from the two accounts in Matthew and Luke. Still, it makes for a better movie, so I am more then willing to forgive this bit of artistic license.
A bigger budget certainly could have made this a better movie. Still, it is good because it shows the human elements and consequences we in America tend to gloss over in our annual Christmas celebrations.
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