** out of ****
Rated PG -13
for some violence and thematic elements
Released: March 11, 2016
Runtime: 111 minutes
Director: Cyrus Nowrasteh
Starring: Adam Greaves-Neal, Sara Lazzaro, Vincent Walsh, and Sean Bean
It’s easier to admire what The Young Messiah is aiming for than it is to actually enjoy or be moved by it – but it is interesting to analyze.
Based on the novel “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt” (written by former vampire author Anne Rice during her Roman Catholic conversion), The Young Messiah tells the story of Jesus at age 7…which is to say that it’s a complete and utter fiction.
The Bible offers virtually nothing in the way of detailing the Holy Family’s life during their Egyptian exile (the setting for this story), and the only description that Scripture offers of Christ as a boy is Luke 2:40: “And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.” To the film’s credit, that’s exactly the Jesus we see here, along with some early hints of the 12-year-old Jesus from Luke 2 that caused Jewish Temple teachers to be “amazed at his understanding”.
The film’s big challenge – and let’s be clear, it’s a big one – is to dramatize this premise in a way that generally stays consistent with Scripture but doesn’t upset the Christian faithful, all while having nothing concrete to go on. Given the degree of difficulty, it should come as little surprise that The Young Messiah soft-peddles its fiction with safe and familiar Jesus scenarios, except here they involve a boy instead of a man.
Where writer/director Cyrus Nowrasteh takes his biggest dramatic licenses are where the film will either rise or fall in the eyes of viewers. Namely, there are three:
- Jesus doesn’t know he’s the Son of God, and Mary and Joseph work to keep that knowledge from him until they feel he’s “ready” for it, even as he displays (and is confused by) his own miraculous powers.
- The very fact that he’s performing miracles, despite the Gospel citation that his first miracle didn’t even occur until he was an adult, turning water into wine at a wedding feast.
- The film’s biggest narrative addition to Rice’s story: a subplot that tracks Roman soldiers in pursuit of Christ. By order of Herod’s son, who now rules in his dead father’s place, the soldiers intend to find Jesus and kill him. (Herod’s son still holds the family’s paranoid grudge, apparently).
Let’s look at these elements one by one, both scripturally and dramatically.
Regarding Jesus’s naiveté about his own God/Man self-identity, you either buy that or you don’t. Some will see this as diminishing his “fully God” essence, and others won’t care. The Bible arguably allows for either, so there’s wiggle room. But dramatically (i.e. for those who don’t care one bit about the ontological implications), it’s weak and labored. Jesus may not know who he is, but boy, it sure seems like everyone else does.
Mary, Joseph and Jesus are in Egypt with extended family, and everyone in their circle – including the other children – know that Jesus is God’s son, but they all must tiptoe around that truth because Mary and Joseph don’t want to talk about it yet. Given that Jesus is performing miracles and expressing wisdom, this ongoing “conflict” is the film’s most strained through-line. Keeping this a secret from Jesus just doesn’t make any sense, other than to give Mary and Joseph something to debate and struggle with.
Regarding the miracles, a viewer’s flexibility for this liberty will directly correlate with one’s need for Biblical literalism (or not). It’s certainly within Christ’s nature, so no problem there. It’s all an issue of the timing, as a child, and degree (there’s an early resurrection), and if you’re willing to allow for that or not. A conversation near film’s end does attempt to reconcile the disparity with Scripture, for what it’s worth. Dramatically the miracles are a bit inert, playing as safe narrative filler, and are never wielded in ways that feel provocative or powerful.
And then there’s the Roman soldiers looking to kill the Jesus boy. When you initially consider that (according to Scripture, and the film) the Holy Family is returning to Judea because an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph saying “for they are dead which sought the young child’s life”, you wonder if the angel got the wrong memo. Granted, Luke 2:22 does give some wiggle room here as well, saying that when Joseph heard of Herod’s son “reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he (Joseph) was afraid to go there.” This soldier subplot fleshes that fear out, but dramatically it falls flat because we know nothing will come of it. It feels like a desperate attempt to give the film some action, as energy and tension are expended toward something with no viable dramatic stakes. The Young Messiah relies way too much – almost exclusively – on Jesus being in peril.
The film’s best moments actually reveal what a more compelling (and, admittedly, challenging to execute) approach to this concept could be, but they’re all too brief. They involve encounters between Jesus and a Rabbi, and in them we see the depth of Christ’s knowledge, wisdom, and even latent omniscience. If this was the focus of the film – rather than miracles, or contrived melodrama – it’d be a more persuasive work, or at least more thought-provoking, because it’s easier for the skeptic to dismiss a miracle (as having some sort of scientific explanation) than it is a well-articulated indisputable truth. In short, a lot less of the miraculous and a lot more of the prophetic would’ve made this a much more distinct, and memorable, young Jesus story, one that could resonate long after the final fade to black, and actually spark conversation.
In total, even with some debatable Scriptural conflicts, the only offense likely to be taken with The Young Messiah is that it doesn’t land with the profound impact of something like The Passion Of The Christ. Even so, it doesn’t jar against the Scriptural nature of its subject in ways that recent Hollywood Bible epics like Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings have. Its production values are solid and the cast is uniformly good, but it’s unfortunate that Italian actress Sara Lazzaro, who plays Mary, wasn’t given more to do than be a worried and anxious parent (“Mary, Did You Know?” indeed). Her climactic conversation with Jesus shows the potential for so much more.
As a narrative, The Young Messiah isn’t particularly engaging, and as a character study it isn’t particularly fascinating. It may be unfair to compare this to The Passion Of The Christ, but that film’s indelible impression has left a standard to reach. Moviegoers – Christians or otherwise – left The Passion with something to wrestle with. The Young Messiah offers a comforting prequel of sorts, but not one that will compel anyone to question what they already believe.
To read my interview with director Cyrus Nowrasteh, click here.