Almost three years after Mel Gibson courted Christian churches for “The Passion of the Christ,” a major studio will put the birth of the Christ onto big screens.

“The Nativity Story,” which focuses on Mary and Joseph prior to the birth of Jesus, is scheduled for a Dec. 1 worldwide release from New Line Cinema.

Various experts picked through the script from Mike Rich, screenwriter of successful films like “Finding Forrester,” “The Rookie” and “Radio.” A number of experts also served as consultants on the film, which began shooting in May on locations in Italy and Morocco.

“Very early on, we wanted to get this script out into as many hands as possible,” Rich said in a featurette on the movie’s Web site, “from historians, theologians, Jewish experts, Catholic experts, ecumenical experts. And all it’s done is just to elevate the authentic feel of this film.”

Such experts included Anne Graham Lotz of AnGeL Ministries, National Religious Broadcasters President and CEO Frank Wright, and Sr. Rose Pacatte, founding director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies.

“Written with heart, directed with sensitivity, produced with excellence and performed with artistic grace,” said Lotz, “it is destined to become a beloved, cherished classic.”

Keisha Castle-Hughes, who received an Oscar nomination in 2003 for “Whale Rider,” plays Mary. Shohreh Aghdashloo, Oscar-nominated for 2003’s “House of Sand and Fog,” plays Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.

The film is directed by Catherine Hardwicke, best known for her 2003 movie “Thirteen.” The gritty, R-rated film explored a 13-year-old girl’s encounters with sex, drugs and crime. Hardwicke’s last film was the 2005 “Lords of Dogtown,” about skateboarding and surfing culture in 1970s California.

Paul O’Donnell, contributor to Beliefnet’s religion and popular culture blog Idol Chatter, said Hardwicke’s participation is “the only hint of edginess attached to the movie.”

“To judge from the trailer, the movie is a basic sandswept epic full of donkeys, drumbeats and non-biblical scenes added for drama,” wrote O’Donnell. New Line, he said, “has taken care to wrap the flick in just the right ribbons and bows to appeal to everyone and offend no one.”

Nevertheless, because passages about the birth of Jesus are limited to two relatively brief ones in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, much of the movie’s narrative had to be innovated.

Screenwriter Rich said writing the script required “a speculative approach to an enormous amount of scenes.” Rich said the nativity story, because of the biblical record, is usually cast as a progression of events as opposed to an understanding of characters and their dynamics.

“It’s rarely looked at from a character standpoint and trying to get inside these two individuals, remarkable individuals—Mary and Joseph,” said Rich, known as a devout Christian.

Mark Moring of Christianity Today read the script and said: “It’s faithful and reverent to the Gospel accounts, but also brings Joseph and Mary’s characters alive in a very human way. They wrestle with fears and doubts and anxieties, all within the framework of unshakeable faith.”

According to Moring, the script includes all the moments people might remember from the nativity accounts: Joseph’s dream, Elizabeth and Zechariah, the wise men, the shepherds, Herod.

It also explores the relationship between Mary and Joseph, which Rich says was the most rewarding part of writing the script.

“When I first decided I was going to sit down and write this particular project, I hadn’t told my pastor about it,” said Rich. “And I went up to him and I said, ‘I’ve got this idea.’ And when I explained it to him, he said, ‘Well, that’s an idea.’ And they put me on the prayer chain immediately, and I’ve stayed there for a good long time.”

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for

The movie’s official Web site is here.

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