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still from the film nativity
Bethlehem's got talent
On the release of the new family comedy Nativity!, Steve Goddard wonders why the best films about Jesus leave him out of the picture
Why do the best movies about Jesus hardly feature him?

It's something I've puzzled about since watching Ben Hur, the classic blockbuster in which we never hear His voice and only glimpse a blessed back and holy hand.

Debbie Isitt's new, improvised family comedy, Nativity! is about the main (son of) man, but he incarnates only briefly – as a plastic baby wrapped in ill-fitting swaddling clothes.

While JC doesn't steal the show, a crotch-grabbing, eight-year-old called Ben Wilby, as a less-than-traditional innkeeper, thrusts himself into the limelight without qualm.

Amongst the merry mayhem, however, timeless rumours of redemption and restoration ring out in this production like a glorious peal of festive bells.

Set in the little town of Coventry, two primary schools (one bog standard state Catholic, the other fee-paying private) are vying to stage the best nativity play in town. Having given up his career as a frustrated, under-achieving actor, Mr Maddens (played by Martin Freeman) has become a frustrated, under-achieving teacher dumped with producing the play for St Bernadette's RC primary. Still thinking of ways to wriggle out of it, Maddens idly boasts that Hollywood is coming to film his production. The lie races round the local community and media – and it's too late to back down.

Playing against Freeman is Marc Wootton as Mr Poppy, a newly-appointed and naive classroom assistant. Think Mr Bean with Tigger's bounce. Unsurprisingly, Poppy wins the immediate affection of the class. Maddens' cheerless cynicism is no match for Poppy's unbridled optimism.

"I created Poppy to believe in the children – for who they are," Isitt told me at a London press junket. "They may not be academically bright, but each child is worth something. I wanted to get across that we shouldn't be preoccupied with all the rules of grown-up life. Let's remember what it's like to be free, to play, to be a child. Maddens has to learn that and he learns it largely from Mr Poppy."

That non-appearing main man had another way of phrasing it: "Unless you become as a little child..."

Eventually and reluctantly, Maddens puts his class of "useless" kids through X Factor-style auditions – the high points of a feel-good movie. In down-at-heel Coventry we discover, against the odds, Bethlehem's Got Talent – and then some. With delightful physical comedy en route, Maddens turns his no-hopers into crack thespians worthy of that longed-for, five-star review.

I asked Martin Freeman if he saw a parallel between those pupils and the twelve disciples – hopeless-turned-heroes.

"I hadn't seen that," he admitted, "but the reason for me that any of that stuff – the religiosity – has validity is that there are some good things to give to people – like the idea of redemption; the idea that we can turn something around. If we are watching films, who do we get behind? The underdog. What the flip was Jesus if he wasn't an underdog, born in a bleedin' manger, you know what I mean?"

And, just as that plastic baby is held triumphantly aloft by a trembling nine-year-old with a tea towel round his head, the denouement: A bright light, or is it a star, appears in the dark Midlands sky. Could it be? Is He going to appear? Finally?

And... relax. This is 21st century Britain in the age of celebrity. It is not He but a handsome, fabulous film producer who steps out of a helicopter and, teeth shining like a supernova, claps along to "Things are Really Cool in Nazareth..."

Surely Hollywood has visited and redeemed his people.

Find out more about Nativity! here
 
 
   
 
 
 
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