Dir: Catherine Hardwicke. US. 2006. 102mins.

One of the most bizarre matches of talent andmaterial this year - the story of the nativity from the director of Thirteen and The Lords Of Dogtown and the writer of The Rookie - delivers a satisfying andentirely inoffensive slice of Biblical drama which could prove remarkablypopular with family audiences in the run-up to Christmas and an evergreen TVprogramming staple in years to come.

Hardwicke tells the story against a realistic and detailedrecreation of village life of the era, eliciting winning performances from Whale Rider star KeishaCastle-Hughes as Mary and newcomer Oscar Isaac as Joseph. The film's mainstrength is the portrayal of the burgeoning relationship between Mary andJoseph, winning out over arch elements like a hissablystock villain in King Herod, some cheesy visual effects and three bickeringkings who could be straight out of a Mel Brooks movie.

The film, originally namedjust Nativity but now given the trite"Story" moniker, is the first majorstudio attempt at Biblical storytelling since Mel Gibson reawakened theappetite for it with The Passion Of The Christ nearly three years ago. If it can captureeven a fraction of that film's admissions, it should turn a profit for New Lineand chances are that it will reach a wide audience. Enthusiastic endorsementhas already come from The Vatican, where the film has its world premiere onFriday (Nov 24) in front of the Pope ahead of its domestic release on Dec 1.

The film starts as Herod(Hinds) orders the killing of all male children under the age of two in thecity of Bethlehem, and then flashes back a year to the Holy Temple in Jerusalemwhere Zechariah (Townsend) receives a vision that his aged wife Elizabeth (Aghdashloo) will bear a child.

Meanwhile, in the small townof Nazareth, the people are struggling to survive in the face of overwhelming financialdemands from King Herod. Fearing that they cannot afford to pay their taxes andthat the Roman soldiers will take her away, the couple Anna (Abbass) and Joaquim (Toub) promise their teenage daughter Mary (Castle-Hughes)to be married to Joseph (Isaac). She is angered by the decision since shedoesn't love Joseph, but soon afterwards, while sulking in an olive grove, sheis visited by an angel who informs her that she will fall pregnant with the sonof God.

Stunned by this news andunaware how to break it to her parents or Joseph, she goes to visit her cousinElizabeth, now in the final stages of her pregnancy, who greets her as themother of the Messiah. After a few months she journeys home to Nazareth whereshe is met by Joseph with predictable hostility at her visible pregnancy.

Herod is living in fear thatthe Old Testament prophecy of a Messiah will come true and, when Rome orders acensus of the region, he decrees that all men must return to the town of theirbirth, hoping in the process that he will find the so-called Messiah.

Joseph, who himself has beenvisited by an angel confirming Mary's claims, begins the long journey toBethlehem with the heavily pregnant Mary. The three magi from Persia are alsotravelling, convinced that the new king will be born at the imminent alignmentof stars and they make the mistake of informing Herod of their idea.

For the most part Hardwicke avoids cliche and corniness in dealing with herwell-worn story and the Mary/Joseph relationship, so rarely considered inprevious versions, brings a layer of secular human interest to the piece whichwill engage viewers expecting the tale exactly as written in the gospels ofMatthew and Luke. The locations in Italy and Morocco double successfully for theregion at the time, although the Middle Eastern accents which the cast adoptare somewhat jarring.

Production company/backers
Temple Hill Productions

US distribution
New Line Cinema

International sales
New Line International

Executive producers
Toby Emmerich
Cale Boyter
Tim Van Rellim
Mike Rich
Catherine Hardwicke

Wyck Godfrey
Marty Bowen

Mike Rich

Elliot Davis

Production design
Stefano Maria Ortolani

Robert K Lambert
Stuart Levy

Mychael Danna

Main cast
Keisha Castle-Hughes
Oscar Isaac
Ciaran Hinds
Hiam Abbass
Shaun Toub
Shohreh Aghdashloo
Stanley Townsend
Nadim Sawalha
Eriq Ebouaney
Stefan Kalipha