The unceasing drabness of The Nativity Story

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In the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, common wisdom had it that there was something you were supposed to understand about The Passion of the Christ in order to understand the voters of the heartland, or the return to old-fashioned values, or whatever it was the liberal elite (remember them?) just didn't get about the wholesome populism of Red America. To observe that The Passion was simply a bad movie was far from a simple gesture; it positioned you, willy-nilly, in a camp with Michael Moore and Cindy Sheehan and SpongeBob SquarePants and all manner of lefty agitators.

Two years later, there's no longer any imperative to pay lip service to bad religious kitsch, and for that, Lord, I'm deeply grateful.

Not, mind you, that I'm equating Catherine Hardwicke, director of The Nativity Story (Buena Vista), with Mel Gibson. Hardwicke's new retelling of the Gospel account of the conception and birth of Jesus, is fatuous, sappy, and dull, but it's neither sadistic nor bigoted. I don't doubt that Hardwicke and her screenwriter, Mike Rich, who's an avowed believer, were uncynically earnest in their desire to translate the Gospel story to the screen. It's just that the best of intentions and a 2,000-year-old heartbreaker of a story are not enough to make a compelling film. You need a point of view and something to say, two things that the ploddingly pious Nativity Story never manages to conjure.

Like an uninspired altarpiece or a by-the-numbers religious pamphlet, the movie simply checks off, one by one, the well-known stations of the Biblical tale.

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