Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Composer: Mychael Danna
Whether you’re Christian or not, The Nativity Story is a powerful film with even more powerful music to accompany it. We experience a grittier, more painfully realistic depiction of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, amid political turmoil and family struggle.
This film, strangely enough, shares the same director as Twilight, but couldn’t be more opposite in look and feel. The composer, Mychael Danna, has a few familiar films under his belt, but in general is not widely known. What this partnership delivered was an emotional masterpiece.
The film opens with King Herod’s “Massacre of the Innocents,” in which he orders the death of every male child under the age of two, in an attempt to thwart the rise of a new foretold leader. We then flash back one year and are placed in Nazareth, where we are introduced to the teenage Mary, who would soon become the mother of Jesus. Danna uses a harp, recorder, and a middle-eastern vocalist for Mary’s theme, which is contemplative and wistful. In the track entitled “Nazareth,” we are taken into the mind and heart of Mary, learning of her inner struggles regarding her predetermined future, in addition to the fears involved in living under political tyranny. We get to know her on an intimate level and share her deep concerns. The score reflects Mary’s yearning for a better life, as well as her desires to honor her family.
After being betrothed to Joseph, she is visited by an angel and told she will bear the son of God. She takes a journey to visit her much older cousin, Elizabeth, who is also with child, where her theme is reprised. Upon Mary’s return, her family is horrified and ashamed to find her pregnant. Joseph, bitterly disappointed, is prepared to divorce her quietly, when he, too, is visited by an angel. He and Mary then make preparations for a voyage to Bethlehem, to be taxed in the land of his birth.
One of the defining characteristics of this film is its realistic portrayal of their strenuous journey. We normally don’t give it much thought, but 90 miles on a donkey across rugged terrain with a meager food supply would prove life-threatening. It is by no means a pleasant trip. Danna gives us this sense of desperate urgency as they approach Bethlehem, and it is obvious that Mary could deliver at any time. In the track “Is there a Place for Us?”, Danna incorporates elements from the familiar Christmas tune, “Carol of the Bells,” but this time in a dangerous, jarring way. Joseph carries Mary from inn to inn but all are full.
The piece transitions us to the scene of Jesus’ birth in a limestone-cave stable. Christ’s birth is not shown in the typical peaceful way, but rather, we are exposed to the extreme desperation of this young couple’s circumstances. As the baby is delivered, glorious light pours through an opening in the cave ceiling, a sign to the Magi of the Christ child’s birth. This music encompasses two tracks, which deserve to be heard together seamlessly. They are “A Star Shall Come Forth” and “I Bring You Good Tidings,” respectively. This is some of the most powerfully emotive music ever to grace the screen. It certainly underscores the significance of the moment and does justice to the subject matter. The piece is marked by heavenly choir that shifts from ominous to passionate to an almost Gregorian Chant-like style. In the middle of the piece, heavy strings complement the choir to form the climactic scene of the film. When Mary holds her newborn son, the mood shifts back to relief and awe.
The film ends with a traditional rendition of Silens Nox, or “Silent Night.” Danna is able to transform a European carol into a tastefully-crafted, traditional piece of music. It seems familiar and appropriate, yet not obvious. By combining Medieval and Middle-eastern styles of music, he paints a beautiful picture with stunning textures that place the viewer in the time period, the setting, and the story. The Nativity Story has a richly unique score that will definitely stand the test of time.