'Nativity Story' retells saga of Christ's birth as story in itself

Thursday, November 30, 2006

LOS ANGELES -- Mel Gibson showed the world the mercilessly bloody end of Jesus Christ's mortal life in "The Passion of the Christ." Now the makers of "The Nativity Story" offer Christ's sweet, humble beginnings in a stable -- which, remarkably, Hollywood has not focused on before.

"It surprised all of us that someone hadn't beaten us to the punch," said Marty Bowen, who quit his job as a talent agent to produce the movie with longtime friend Wyck Godfrey.

"I think a lot of times in Hollywood, the right idea comes along at the right time, and it becomes in retrospect, 'Wow, why didn't I think of that?'" Godfrey said.

The story of Christ's birth in Bethlehem has been depicted many times in film and television, but generally as only the beginning of the saga such as in the miniseries "Jesus of Nazareth," or as a backdrop for another tale.

"The Nativity Story," opening Friday, takes the scant accounts of Christ's birth in the New Testament and fleshes the story out to a simple but evocative drama.

Screenwriter Mike Rich hit on the idea two years ago, when both Time and Newsweek arrived in the mail bearing cover stories on the Nativity.

"I read both of the articles, and I was kind of struck by the fact that we rarely look at that story from a character standpoint," Rich said. "When we put out our little Nativity sets, they're kind of inanimate objects."

An unlikely cast of actors and filmmakers bring "The Nativity Story" to the screen.

Rich's screenplay credits are highlighted by the sports flicks "The Rookie" and "Radio."

Australian actress Keisha Castle-Hughes, an Academy Award nominee for "Whale Rider," had to overcome her thick Kiwi accent to play the Virgin Mary. Guatamalan-American actor Oscar Isaac plays Jesus' stepdad Joseph, while Iranian-born Shohreh Aghdashloo co-stars as Mary's cousin Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist.

Though not dreamed up as a bookend to Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," the filmmakers and distributor New Line Cinema hope they can capture a solid chunk of the audience that made that film such an unlikely blockbuster.

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