MOVIE REVIEW- Pass the plate: Putting the $ back in Chri$tma$

In the 21st century there's no point putting Christ back in Christmas unless you can make a buck doing it. I'm sorry if I sound cynical, but if you believe The Nativity Story was made for purely religious reasons, I have some stock in Jim Bakker's Heritage USA park to sell you.

Whatever the motivation, The Nativity Story is a reverent, decently made illustrated Sunday school lesson. Obviously inspired by The Passion of the Christ, it opens on the most violent scene, the slaughter of the innocents (kept safely PG by not showing frightened babies and sword-wielding men in the same shot), before flashing back a year to begin the story.

Later there's an unintentionally amusing attempt to spice up the dull hundred-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. While they're crossing a river, a snake startles a donkey and throws Mary on her– er, off her ass.

Mostly it's an extended version of the story that's usually the prologue in movies that can't wait to get to the hunky Jesus, aged 30, beginning his ministry.

A white-robed, translucent angel (Alexander Siddig), who comes and goes in the form of a bird, delivers most of the good news; but Zechariah (Stanley Townsend) hears from God personally that his past-childbearing-age wife, Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo), will bear him a son. The child will be named John and will act as advance man for the coming Messiah.

We meet Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a virginal teenager, toiling in the fields on her father's (Shaun Toub) farm. King Herod (Ciar'n Hinds), who has reigned for 35 years, is demanding unfair taxes, taking children and livestock from people who don't have money.

Before Herod can take Mary, her father gives her in marriage to Joseph (Oscar Isaac), with the understanding they won't live together or fool around for a year. Cue the Angel with the "Good News," which makes things a little awkward (but again, within PG boundaries) for the girl. She arranges to spend the summer with Elizabeth, her cousin, and is visibly pregnant when she returns home. The Angel comes to Joseph in a dream to tell him everything's cool.

The people's hopes have been kept alive for years by prophecies of a messiah. The stories of "a man of power, a man the people will follow" are making Herod nervous. Meanwhile in Persia, the Magi are planning a trip. Balthasar (Eriq Ebouaney), the astronomer, foretells a planetary convergence which could signal the birth of the Messiah. Melchior (Nadim Sawalha) insists they go and persuades cranky old Gaspar (Stefan Kalipha) to join them. Herod notes their arrival and invites them to the palace to pump them for information, then orders that they be followed.

This apparently doesn't happen. A heavenly spotlight shining on the manger where Mary gives birth attracts the Magi and an assortment of local shepherds but no soldiers. As the film returns to its opening sequence, the Angel tells Joseph and Mary to get out of Dodge (I'm paraphrasing), so Jesus escapes the killing of all male children under two. Cue the orchestra, which plays "Silent Night" almost 1,800 years before it's written. (The opening theme is "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," but at least it's sung in Latin.) A couple of other carols creep in, but mostly Mychael Danna's score sounds reasonably ancient, i.e., no hip-hop.

A subplot about Herod suspecting his son of plotting rebellion goes nowhere. Most of Mike Rich's script is by the Book, leaving the actors, under Catherine Hardwicke's direction, to flesh out the characters. This they do reasonably well. They also create a cohesive community, considering that the leads are from New Zealand (Castle-Hughes) and Guatemala (Isaac).

Somewhere between a megachurch pageant and a sword-and-sandal epic (with the emphasis on the sandals), The Nativity Story isn't likely to be an award contender, but it's one of the better options for those who complain of there being no movies for God-fearin' families to see.