Anne Rice’s ‘The Young Messiah’

Today, when the film ‘the Young Messiah’ premiered, I was there, with about 10 other people to see it. If you have recently seen the film ‘Risen’ the similarities between the two films will immediately strike you– both focus on a centurion in quest to find Jesus (or in ‘Risen’, Jesus’ body), and both centurions discover more than they bargained for. I’m quite sure these films were independently done, so the parallels can be called either serendipity or accidental. In any case ‘the Young Messiah’ is a film based on Anne Rice’s earlier historical novel, ‘Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt’. Like ‘Risen’ this film is short, under two hours (one hour 51 minutes in this case) and also like ‘Risen’ it is not populated with stars, though doubtless you will recognize Sean Bean as the centurion at the center of the plot. This film is also in some ways like ‘the Nativity’ film of several years ago not only in its portrayal of wicked Herod Antipas, but also in its reverential portrayal of the holy family and Jesus. This is certainly a film that affirms the divinity of Christ clearly, and is family friendly, though there are a few scenes of crucifixions and other violence. At the heart of this film is a story about Mary and Joseph trying to shield their special son, ‘until the time had fully come’ and of the rightly curious and puzzled Jesus who wants to know more about his origins and destiny, and who exactly he is. In this regard, the film develops the idea of Jesus’ progressive learning of things as depicted in Lk. 2.52.

There are a good many things to like about the film, and a few things to give one pause. On the positive side, this film does not take the liberties of a film like The Passion of the Christ, which added all sorts of later Catholic theology to the story derived from Anna Katherine Emerich’s mystical reflections in her ‘The Dolorous Passion of the Christ’. This film sticks to a particular story line that is plausible and involves much fewer anachronisms. The cinematography is well done, as are the social settings of the drama. One does however have to accept the premise that Jesus performed miracles when he was a child, something the canonical Gospels do not suggest, though later apocryphal ones do. My question about that is that in Matthew and Luke Jesus performs his miracles after the Spirit anoints him at baptism, and he quite specifically says that he performs them by the Spirit of God, not by his divine nature. Another part of the story telling in ‘the Young Messiah’ is the assumption that James and the other children were cousins of Jesus, not actual brothers and sisters, whereas the Gospels themselves call them brothers and sisters and they are presented as the younger children of Mary and Joseph, not the older children of Joseph or some relative of Mary or Joseph. Then too, was it really the case that after Herod slaughtered the innocents that Herod’s descendants assumed that they had missed one of those children and needed to hunt him down long before Jesus’ ministry? This is a motif essential to the plot of this movie, which is probably not well grounded in history.

In some ways the most effective part of the film is the exploration of the relationship between Jesus and his parents, and their obvious concerns to protect him in a volatile setting, while Jesus was always pushing the envelope to know more and to understand better who he was, what he should do, what his origins and destiny was. Some of the scenes become a bit melodramatic or predictable, but some of them, especially the closing scene between Mary and Jesus, are powerful and effective.

Provided one understands that this film is based on a work of historical fiction that explores what life must have been like for Jesus as a child, and that one understands this is a thought experiment that seeks to be faithful to both the humanity and divinity of Christ, there is much to appreciate about this film, and it can lead to good discussions about Jesus’ life before the time of his baptism and ministry.

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