Film review: The Young Messiah

posted at 4:01 pm on March 11, 2016 by Ed Morrissey

What would the childhood of Jesus been like? How would He have grappled with his fully human and fully divine natures? The Gospels tell us of the birth of Jesus and of his ministry thirty years later, but very little in between, save for one episode in the temple. The Young Messiah, a new film from Cyrus Nowrasteh opening today, attempts to fill the gap and succeeds in presenting a touching and engaging film that will remain with movie-goers of faith long after they have left the theater.

The film opens with Joseph, Mary, and Jesus living in Alexandria, seven years after they fled Herod the Great’s wrath, along with Mary’s brother Cleopas, wife Seleni, and son James, Jesus’ older cousin. They get word that Herod has died just as Jesus becomes involved in a confrontation with a bully, who dies accidentally when Satan tempts the boy into attacking Jesus. Jesus, who knows he has power but does not understand it yet, intervenes. That sends the family packing for Nazareth, but the notoriety reaches Herod Antipas, who orders a Roman centurion to find Jesus and finish the job he started in Bethlehem seven years earlier.

The most recognizable face in the film is Sean Bean as the centurion Severus. In Risen, also an excellent film, the narrative focuses on a Roman tribune, providing an oblique approach to the Gospels. This film focuses squarely on Jesus himself and his family to offer an approach to the “missing years” of the Gospel, while indirectly reflecting the Gospel story. Severus nonetheless plays an important role and a touchstone for the audience here as well, as outsiders looking into the Holy Family story. Severus will at some point have to reconcile his worldliness with the wonder he beholds, as will we all.

The inclusion of Satan (credited as “The Demon” in the cast list and played by Rory Keenan) recalls a similar use in The Passion of the Christ, but with some differences. Keenan plays the Demon as a seductor, unseen but physically beautiful, who actively tempts people to act in ways that puts Jesus in mortal danger. Only Jesus sees him, and it’s clear that a confrontation will take place at some point. Keenan’s intensity reminds us of the dangers of sin and the constant spiritual warfare believers endure, and implicitly provides a context for why Jesus came to live as both fully divine and fully human.

Cyrus Nowrasteh and his wife Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh adapted the screenplay from the Anne Rice novel of the same title, but understood the shoals in which they were about to head. During a Q&A at an advance screening at CPAC where I saw the film, Nowrasteh explained that they consulted with theologians from a number of denominations to ensure that nothing in the film contradicted Christian doctrine. The speculative nature of this enterprise runs plenty of risks of offense to millions of faithful moviegoers, but the Nowrastehs have navigated through the dangers to present a lovely perspective on the Holy Family, in a narrative that foreshadows the ministry of Jesus presented to us in the Gospels. In that sense, it does what Risen also successfully manages — an indirect look at the Gospels through the use of a narrative device.

For that to work, the performances of the leads have to work, and in The Young Messiah, they certainly do. Vincent Walsh and Sara Lazzaro deliver solid performances as Joseph and Mary, but Adam Greaves-Neal gives a terrific performance as Jesus, complemented by an equally good turn by Finn Ireland as James, the older cousin who loves Jesus but resents him a little as well, and who starts explaining why everyone treats him a little differently. The emotional crux of the film takes place when Mary explains to Jesus why He is so special, and why it is important for Him to wait until the Father reveals His plan before proceeding. That scene could easily descend into treacle, but Lazzaro communicates the awe and pressure of this moment perfectly.

Moviegoers of faith have had a relative bounty of riches in 2016, first with Risen and now with The Young Messiah. They are two very different films, but both provide people with touching and effective encounters with Christ and Scripture. As important, both are good films — well made, well cast, and expertly directed, which will make them enjoyable to ordinary moviegoers as well as those of faith. This weekend, go see The Young Messiah, and while you’re at it, see Risen too.

On the Hot Air scale, The Young Messiah gets a five:

  • 5 – Full price ticket
  • 4 – Matinee only
  • 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
  • 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

The Young Messiah has a PG-13 rating due to “some mild violence and thematic elements.” Frankly, I think that’s an overshoot by the MPAA; the violence is not very explicit, and the thematic element they mean is the Satan character, who is legitimately creepy, for good reason. I’d have no issue with my 13-year-old granddaughter watching this, and my 7-year-old is watching the later Harry Potter movies, so I think she could handle this as well.

Yesterday, I had a chance to interview Cyrus by phone for The Ed Morrissey Show about The Young Messiah, and how he approached the material.

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