Yes, there is something about Mary. Something inspiring. Something hopeful.

Told with faith, heart and simplicity, The Nativity Story follows the physical and spiritual journey of this Judean 13-year-old and Joseph, her betrothed, from their engagement through the first Christmas.

Because its makers walk in the sandals of this young couple struggling to understand the implications of God's favor, the movie encourages empathy rather than religious awe. It knocks Mary and Joseph out of the creche and off the fresco and sees them as living, breathing individuals.

The result is a vital, human-scaled drama that gets into the heads and souls of ordinary people who come to realize they are figures of destiny.

What must it be like to be 13, a devout Jewess living under the repressive regime of King Herod and the uncertainties of Roman occupation? In encounters with villagers and Herod's soldiers, Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is watchful and shy.

She can scarcely make eye contact with Joseph (Oscar Isaac), the smiling, bearded man to whom her parents have betrothed her. So imagine her reaction when an apparition, the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig), tells her she has been chosen to bear God's child. She's confused. And afraid. But, she says, the will for the child is greater even than her fear.

Between them screenwriter Mike Rich (Finding Forrester, Radio) and director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown) have chronicled the teenage experience, from academics to athletics. Here they give life to a teenager who struggles to meet her duty to family, faith and self.

A potential weakness of the film is that Castle-Hughes, so unpredictable and exuberant as the tribal shaman of Whale Rider, is unusually subdued.

But her reticence serves to strengthen another aspect of the film. The Nativity Story is really the love story of Mary and Joseph. What must it be like to be a 13-year-old girl who explains to her betrothed that she is pregnant, but chaste?

Isaac's emotional performance as the man who learns to share the woman he loves with the God he worships is profoundly moving and gives the movie its heart.

Hardwicke's movie (PG-rated for discreet violence) sets the journey of Mary and Joseph against that of the Three Wise Men - played here for comic relief, like a brainy version of the Three Stooges.

The rhythms of her film - much of it shot, like Passion of the Christ, in the ruggedly picturesque town of Matera, Italy - underscore the spiritual and physical convergence of the Holy Family with the wise men from the East.

The Nativity Story is not a perfect movie. But I admire it for avoiding the epic and spectacular and for telling its story with intimacy and immediacy. It's a film for all ages and faiths.

The Nativity Story *** (out of four stars)

Produced by Wyck Godfrey and Marty Bowen, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, written by Mike Rich, photography by Elliot Davis, music by Mychael Danna, distributed by New Line Cinema.

Running time: 1 hour, 41 mins.

Mary. . . Keisha Castle-Hughes

Joseph. . . Oscar Isaac

King Herod. . . Ciarán Hinds

Elizabeth. . . Shohreh Aghdashloo

Gabriel. . . Alexander Siddig

Parent's guide: PG (nothing unsuitable for children)

Playing at: area theaters

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Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/
carrierickey.