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In the beginning was the brutal The Passion of the Christ, which is why this movie opens with a reasonably intense action-flick sequence in which King Herod’s soldiers frantically search for infant boys to kill. Blood never spurts, however, even in a fleeting animal-sacrifice scene. Unlike Mel Gibson’s devotional snuff movie, the PG-rated The Nativity Story doesn’t qualify as a form of child abuse—except for youngsters who are unusually sensitive to tedium. Director Catherine Hardwicke’s earlier films include the girl-goes-wild Thirteen, but her new one is as bland and cautious as a church-school production. Filmed in a dusty part of Italy, as was The Passion, Hardwicke’s version is more naturalistic than old-style Biblical epics but never surprising; it’s clearly designed for an audience of true believers who prefer respectful treatment to dramatic reinterpretation. Scripter Mike Rich, whose previous credits include the dreary Finding Forrester, follows the customary formula for smoothing the discrepancies of various Bible passages and latter-day accounts. He combines the two versions of the legend found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and includes widely accepted embellishments. Thus Mary and Joseph 1) travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where 2) they are visited by the Magi, of which there are 3) three, named Melchior, Balthasar, and Gaspar. (No. 1 is from Luke, No. 2 from Matthew, and No. 3 is not in the Bible at all.) The cast includes some actual natives of the Middle East, including Palestinian Hiam Abbass as Mary’s mother Anna and Iranian Shohreh Aghdashloo as Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, but Mary is played by New Zealander Keisha Castle-Hughes, Joseph by American Oscar Isaac, and Herod by Irishman Ciarán Hinds. All deliver their lines in stilted “foreign” diction that, if more understandable than The Passion’s Aramaic, still has a distancing effect. Although Mary and Joseph are given a few human moments, the characters are remote and the story nearly inert. This Christmastide, if you’re given a choice between some corny children’s Christmas pageant and this pious snooze, take the kids.

—Mark Jenkins