MATERA, Italy- During the filming of The Nativity Story, director Catherine Hardwicke's silent prayers included an appeal for one more hour of sunlight so that she could film another scene before dark. "I didn't want to pray for things," she told WORLD, "but sometimes you just have to." She was baking in the late afternoon heat of the Sahara Desert in Morocco when the donkey accompanying Mary and Joseph refused to walk on the scorching sand. "I don't blame him-who would?" said Hardwicke. After all, when the Humane Society representative put a digital thermometer in the sand, it read 135 degrees.
To make matters worse, her cinematographer said she had 30 minutes before the sun would be gone. The donkey, meanwhile, wasn't budging. "I've got to have this shot," she told her crew. She sent out a directive, translated into the seven languages spoken on the set: Everyone has to pray and believe that the donkey is going to move.
"When I say 'action,' you're going to roll the camera," she told her crew. "They said, 'It hasn't walked yet, Catherine.' And I said, 'Well, it's going to walk.'" With the crew muttering prayers under its breath, the donkey moved on cue. "It continued walking for the whole half hour," she recalls with a grin, "and you see the beautiful shot."
That was just one of the answered prayers surrounding The Nativity Story-the first Bible-themed film produced by a major Hollywood studio (New Line) since Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. Recent religious movies such as The Passion of the Christ were bankrolled with independent financing, but depending on the success of Nativity's Dec. 1 release, that may change. Studio executives will watch (and perhaps pray) for a box-office miracle.
Nativity graphically explores the tense conflict and steadfast love of Mary and Joseph leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ-in an ambitious and gritty film with an international cast from 23 nations: Oscar-nominated Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) as Mary, Oscar Isaac (Syriana) as Joseph, and Oscar-nominated Shoreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog) as Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist.
On the set of Nativity during spring filming in the ancient city of Matera, Italy, with its homes carved out of rock, it's easy to see why the location also was the backdrop for The Passion. The joke was that Matera looks more like Jerusalem than Jerusalem does.
Screenwriter Mike Rich (Finding Forrester, Radio, and The Rookie) was inspired to write the script after seeing the birth of Christ on the cover of 2004 Time and Newsweek Christmas issues. He spent the following year researching every aspect of the biblical and historical background of Christ's birth. Rich felt a keen sense of responsibility to get the story right while writing a script that would visually captivate an audience. "Instead of 'What would Jesus do?'" he said, "for me it was more like, 'What would Luke write?' It had to be consistent with the tone and tenor of both what Matthew and Luke had written."
That was not always easy. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke emphasize different aspects of the story. Blending the two narratives-having the shepherds and wise men arriving at the same time, for one thing-was done for cinematic effect, not out of ignorance. "We have the Magi arriving earlier than they probably did," says Rich. "We had to compress."
Although Mary's perspective is well-known enough to reach iconic cultural status, Nativity presents an equally compelling character portrait of the quiet heroism of Joseph. "Talk about limited source material," Rich confessed. "The only description of Joseph in the Bible is that 'he was a righteous man.'"
The challenge, said Rich, was to write a majority of scenes that are completely speculative. "I wanted to look inside these two individual characters-Joseph and Mary-and explore the doubts, fear, and faith that drove them on the journey that extends far beyond the end of our movie."
For Juilliard-trained actor Oscar Isaac, the role of Joseph was a welcome challenge. "How do I play this?" he asked himself. "I'm going to have the Son of God? It's such an abstract idea. . . . And then I realized, that's exactly what Joseph was thinking!"
Isaac concluded that Joseph's decisions not to publicly humiliate or divorce Mary stem from a divine dream, but also from his righteousness. "I just loved her so much, that suddenly I realized that righteousness just means selfless, humble love."
Isaac was not the only person involved with the project whose vision of Christmas was rejuvenated by a fresh perspective on an age-old story. Director Hardwicke was raised in a church-going home in McAllen, Texas, where her father still sings in the First Presbyterian Church choir. "I loved the songs and I loved everything about Christmas, but I did not think so deeply about it," she said. "I didn't think that this must have been difficult for Mary. I didn't see her as a human. I didn't even think about what Joseph must have gone through. I never thought about the humanity of the holiday."
There is a heavy emphasis on the humanity and somber conflict of the Christmas story. The slaughter of the innocents, the disdainful looks of Mary and Joseph's friends and family, the arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and the political oppression of Herod's tax-gouging despotism are all prominent.
During the filming, the Magi's approach to the manger rattled Hardwicke's perception of Christmas. "They stop and see that their expectations are completely inverted," she recalled. "They were looking for a king and they found a humble situation, a baby born with animals. It's an overwhelming notion that God chose this manner of sending His Son. It really struck me for the first time on a deep level how amazing that was, why the story is so enduring, why it moves people so much, and why it is so inspiring."
-Steve Beard is a writer, columnist, and creator of Thunderstruck.org
New York City pastor Tim Keller once said it's easy for conditioned Christians to miss the "swoosh" and "boom" of the Christmas story as it moves like a train through the American holiday season. Years of hearing the same nativity narrative can make us numb to elements that should shock us every time: The Son of God became man, chose to be born of a young teenage girl who gave birth in the utter lowest of circumstances.
If the story has grown empty in our hearts, it's a malaise The Nativity Story can help cure. The partly imagined account of the events leading up to Jesus' birth gives flesh and form to the birth accounts of Matthew and Luke. In that way, The Nativity Story and The Passion of the Christ provide on-screen bookends to Jesus' life.
Considering the money Mel Gibson made with The Passion's non-Hollywood narrative of Jesus' death and resurrection, Tinseltown didn't want to turn this one down. When veteran screenplay writer Mike Rich pitched a script of Jesus' birth to Hollywood executives, they jumped on the opportunity.
On screen, the film dazzles with sets and costumes that rival some of the best period pieces. It imagines the lives of Mary and Joseph prior to their betrothment. A very young Mary catches the eye of an older Joseph because of her virtue. Mary's father sees Joseph as a way for his daughter to escape the extreme poverty of Nazareth. Then the Angel Gabriel comes. The story ends with the young family's flight to Egypt to escape the murderous Herod. Along the way, some Hollywood shines through: Impending peril mars Joseph and Mary's journey to Bethlehem; three wisecracking Magi provide sporadic comedy relief.
The Nativity Story will make a lot of money-and that's probably a good thing. Despite some extraneous Tinseltown noise, it's hard to miss the booming mysteries of Christ's birth. As one of the Magi says when he arrives at the stable: "The Greatest of Kings, born in the most humble of places."