What Would Jesus Watch?

If Van Wilder 2 was sold out, he might try one of these very different films about his religion

Josh Bell

It's baffling that a major studio (New Line) is giving a wide release to The Nativity Story, a drab, boring and perfectly faithful retelling of the story of Jesus' birth that would look right at home on the Hallmark Channel (where, no doubt, it will play every Christmas until the end of time, starting next year). It's even more baffling that this exercise in devotion was helmed by Catherine Hardwicke, the director of flashy, crazy-teens-do-crazy-things movies Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, who exhibits none of the visual flair she brought to those movies.

Indeed, anyone without deep faith would probably find The Nativity Story an effective pitch for Christianity as the dullest religion ever. Hardwicke's main direction to her cast seems to have been, "Be more stilted," as she's able to get such forceful actors as Whale Rider's Keisha Castle-Hughes (as Mary), Shohreh Aghdashloo (as Mary's cousin, Elizabeth) and Ciaran Hinds (as King Herod) to give wooden and utterly unnatural performances. Not that the script by Mike Rich (writer of such blandly inspirational fare as Radio and The Rookie) gives them anything to work with.

Although Mary has a minor crisis of faith when the archangel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig, another good actor wasted) tells her she is to bear the child of the Lord, and her husband, Joseph (Oscar Isaac), likewise is doubtful at his wife's virgin pregnancy, such dilemmas are smoothed over quickly and without complications, allowing the couple to make their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem as devoted spouses and one-dimensional servants of God.

Nativity is as uninspired and exposition-heavy as a high school play, and its chaste, measured tone paints a very different picture of Christianity from the one on display in Jesus Camp, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's documentary about an evangelical summer camp for kids in North Dakota. No one in Jesus Camp is as stolid and introspective about their faith as Joseph and Mary, and the religion on display among these contemporary zealots bears only a passing resemblance to the one exhibited by the characters in Nativity. Of course, Jesus Camp is a horror movie for liberals, and it provides exactly what people who fear Christian conservatives expect to see: single-minded fundamentalists railing against abortion, homosexuality, evolution and the lack of prayer in schools, and indoctrinating their impressionable young children with the same views.

Ewing and Grady do a good job of standing back and letting their subjects dig their own graves; watching camp founder Becky Fischer talk about creating young soldiers for Christ just the way that radical Muslims train their children to be terrorists is all the more chilling because she does it with a smile. And two of the child subjects—an overachieving Tracy Flick-type who approaches strangers with evangelical tracts, and a hellfire-spewing young preacher with an awesome Christian mullet—are gold mines in themselves, demonstrating the single- and simple-minded intensity of the young combined with the absolute certainty of divine authority. Also, fundamentalist kids have universally bad haircuts, which is good for a few laughs.

The deck is stacked here, naturally, but that doesn't make the scenes at the camp any less real. Ewing and Grady tip their hand, though, by cutting every so often to liberal radio host Mike Papantonio, who provides entirely superfluous commentary on the growing menace of the religious right, and by framing the film with the confirmation of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, an event that has nothing to do with their subjects, except to make them appear even more sinister by inference.

Not surprisingly, both films preach to their respective choirs, choirs that probably inherently misunderstand each other. Not that any sort of meaningful connection could be forged by viewing a mediocre Biblical re-enactment along with an effective but manipulative political documentary, but for once people might have a sense of the diversity that exists not only among religions, but within them as well.

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