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THE NATIVITY STORY is a remarkable, if frustratingly restrained, act of imagining the tale of Christ's birth as a flesh-and-blood drama actually set in Israel two millenia ago. Written by Mike Rich (Finding Forrester) and directed by Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen), the film makes very strong impressions in a scene-by-scene way. Beginning with the slaughter (bloodlessly portrayed; this is a PG movie) of Bethlehem's innocents under orders from a paranoid King Herod (a dark and knowing Ciaran Hinds), the film then jumps back a year to the prophecy that informs Zechariah (Stanley Townsend) that his wife, Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo), will bear a child. Meanwhile, Elizabeth's cousin, the adolescent Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes), struggles with her family to make ends meet and is promised to the carpenter Joseph (Oscar Isaac). Soon comes word to Mary, via an angel, that she will carry, while still a virgin, the long-awaited Messiah who will liberate the Jews from Herod and his Roman benefactors. Thus begins a detailed account of Joseph and Mary's hard travel to Bethlehem, while three Magi spend months crossing the desert trying to rendezvous with some point below the convergence of three heavenly bodies in the night sky. Hardwicke and Rich anchor all this in period detail, though what proves most moving are relationship nuances, especially the friendship and trust that emerge between Mary and Joseph after he is told in a dream that she speaks truthfully about her miraculous pregnancy. While The Nativity Story should appeal to almost anyone as a straightforward narrative, it is far from a secular version of the familiar Biblical tale, and thus feels a bit stifled. It might have been nice if the film could have breathed a little more with imagination, but The Nativity Story makes up for it by ingeniously weaving hints of things to come, later in Christ's life, into the action.