If The Young Messiah (opening Friday, March 11) accomplished nothing other than offering a way to spread biblical values via Hollywood, it would succeed for that alone. Director Cyrus Nowrasteh achieves this and more.
Many lament the lack of major motion pictures depicting Bible-based stories. One obstacle studios face is that the stories are already known. It’s difficult to generate viewers from texts people have studied for thousands of years. Harder still: doing so when audience members could be offended if the story leaves out or adds details. However, such editing is often necessary when taking a story told in several paragraphs in the Bible, and turning it into a feature-length movie (see: Noah).
Much like the movie Risen which hit theaters last month, The Young Messiah finds a clever way to spread the good news: through fiction that tells a separate story from the Gospels without losing the truth in them. That is an important to take note of. The movie is a work of fiction. A few episodes are similar to childhood stories of Jesus as shown in apocryphal books, but they do not portray anything contradictory to the Christ of the Gospels.
The story is based on Anne Rice’ 2005 Novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. The filmmakers, perhaps not wanting to prejudice viewer’s minds based on Rice’ less-than-religious prior writings, don’t mention this in trailers, nor the opening credits. It takes place in Christ’s “hidden” childhood, when Jesus was seven. Beginning in Egypt, it follows The Holy Family back to Nazareth, and (like the Gospels) has its climax in Jerusalem.
It contains plenty of fictional or heavily fictionalized characters, who fill the roles needed without seeming like tropes. I enjoyed getting to know Cleopas (Christian McKay), without realizing his purpose is to provide, if not comic relief, lighter moments. If one doesn’t notice that’s what his role is, it was done well.
The fictional conflict stems from Herod Antipas, who inherited some of his father’s paranoia (his emotional instability is played brilliantly by Jonathan Bailey). Wondering whether the prior infanticide achieved its goal, yet unwilling to initiate another large scale massacre, he takes a targeted approach, instructing a centurion, Severus, to find and kill the young king. Severus (Sean Bean, believable as the grizzled soldier), a veteran of the initial slaughter, takes pride in how he has handled his past, if not of the actions themselves. Some of the movie’s best moments come from interaction between these two opposite personalities; the acting of Bean and Bailey shine here.
While Herod and Severus struggle with their demons (including a literal one: a personification of Satan who appears repeatedly throughout the film, from the opening scene), Mary and Joseph face their own struggles. Included is their role as stewards over the Son of God as he becomes aware of himself and the world. The scene in which Sara Lazarro, as Mary, recalls for Jesus her visit from the angel is touching after Mary’s prior struggle over when to share this information.
Young Adam Graeves-Neal takes on the lead role. He is also the reason most of the cast have British accents (a distraction I struggled with while watching). This was not, however, another attempt to present Jesus as a Eurocentric hero. Director Nowrasteh auditioned many hundreds of children from widely varying backgrounds for the role, and decided from the start that after he casted Jesus, the rest of the family would share his accent, for the sake of consistency. Graeves-Neal was his pick, and does well in a role many child-actors would struggle with.
Some viewers struggled with a scene when Jesus, separated from his family, winds up at the Temple in Jerusalem, as inaccurately portraying an event the Bible specifically mentions happens when Jesus is twelve years old, not seven. On the contrary, I took this as a positive. The Gospels never said that was the first time that our Lord was found there. I rather enjoy an image of the Good Shepherd establishing his tendency to leave the flock to go where he’s needed at times (which would also explain twelve-year-old Jesus’ statement of surprise that his parents should have known sooner where to find him).
If the film’s climax seems simplistic (the audience must suspend disbelief that a centurion with Severus’ background would react as he does), even this complaint short-changes the Lord’s ability to convert a heart.
The film is rated PG-13, due to scenes of violence, and one displaying the aftereffects of crucifixions. So it is not for younger children; despite the age of Christ, don’t take your little ones. Those mature enough to understand the violence in Roman-occupied Israel in the first decade A.D. will enjoy it, as will their parents. I highly recommend this movie for teens and adults alike.
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