Review: A Child Called Jesus (dir. Franco Rossi, 1987)

childcalledjesus

The Young Messiah — which comes out this Friday — isn’t the first film to focus on the early childhood of Jesus. Nearly 30 years ago, an Italian filmmaker named Franco Rossi directed a two-part TV-movie called Un bambino di nome Gesù (a.k.a. A Child Called Jesus), and it’s striking to see how much the two films have in common.

For starters, they both take place when Jesus is seven years old, and they both concern his journey from Egypt back to Nazareth with his parents. They both feature an antagonist who has some sort of connection to the slaughter in Bethlehem and now wants to finish the job. They both show Jesus performing miracles as a child — at least one of which, borrowed from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, involves giving life to a bird — but they also both depict Jesus as someone who does not yet grasp just who he is. They both show Jesus interfering or intervening in someone else’s attempt to sacrifice a dove. And they both have scenes of Jewish rebels being crucified by their Roman oppressors, scenes that serve to foreshadow Jesus’ own fate.

There are some significant differences between the films, though. A Child Called Jesus concerns itself exclusively with Jesus and his parents, but The Young Messiah makes the uncle, aunt and cousins of Jesus part of the action too (and there were even more cousins in the original Anne Rice novel). A Child Called Jesus follows the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in having Jesus turn a clay model of a bird into a living, breathing, flying organism, whereas in The Young Messiah Jesus merely brings a dead bird back to life. And when it comes to antagonists, The Young Messiah stars Sean Bean as a Roman centurion who works for the Herodian kings, while A Child Called Jesus stars Pierre Clémenti as a Syrian with a slightly more complicated background.

The premise behind the Clémenti character, whose name is Sefir, is that there were actually four astrologers who saw the star that appeared over Bethlehem — but unlike the three Magi (and unlike, say, the protagonist in The Fourth Wise Man), Sefir did not wish to pay homage to the Christ child. Instead, like Herod, he wanted to kill the Christ child — and it is suggested that he came very close to succeeding, because he knew something Herod’s soldiers didn’t, that there was a family living in a stable in Bethlehem. But the family was gone before Sefir could get there. So now, seven years later, Sefir tracks down what information he can and follows the clues to Egypt.

One of the main threads in this film is the way in which the Holy Family was a lot like other families — sometimes to the point of banality, but also sometimes in ways that hint at how Jesus, by becoming human, learned to experience life the way we do.

On the more banal end of things, Jesus plays with his friends and is late for his lessons and, at the age of seven, hasn’t finished learning the Hebrew alphabet yet. Mary asks, “What am I going to do with him?” Joseph replies, “He’s just acting his age.” To which Mary retorts, “You always take his side.” In a much, much later scene, a woman offers Mary and Jesus some food and hospitality, and Jesus replies, like a typical fussy child, “Please, no dried beans soaked in water.” And when Jesus says he saw a vision of someone healing people — a vision of his future, though he does not know that yet — Mary replies, a bit defensively, “Listen, Jesus, all children imagine strange things, it’s part of childhood,” and she tells him “imagining and fantasizing are beautiful.”

Other scenes point in a similarly reductive direction, but at least have the potential to be a bit more profound than that. A flash-forward to Jesus’ first miracle as an adult — the one he performed at the wedding in Cana, after his mother goaded him to do something about the lack of wine — is inter-cut with a scene in which Jesus and Mary talk about how “all mothers” fear losing their children when their children have grown up and become independent. And when Jesus has a vision of his own death and burial, the main thing he takes away from it is that “man is mortal.” There was a lot more to Jesus’ death than that, of course, but still, there comes a moment in every child’s life when he realizes he’s going to die some day, and it’s interesting to wonder how Jesus might have grappled with the realization that he, too, was mortal like us.

The film does, of course, emphasize that there is something different about Jesus — something that sets him apart from the other children. For one thing, as noted above, he has visions of the future, not only of the miracles he will perform but of conversations he will have with the disciples (most prominently, the “Who do people say that I am?” discourse, which ties in nicely to the child’s emerging questions about his own identity). The young Jesus also performs miracles, not only creating a bird out of clay but also helping some Egyptians with a miraculous catch of fish and healing a Jewish woman who has been ostracized because of her leprosy-like disease.

Jesus also occasionally says things that give the adults pause. At one point while living with Mary and Joseph in Egypt he states, “This is not my Father’s house,” which causes Joseph to wonder if Jesus has figured out where his true paternity lies. (In this film, as in The Young Messiah, it seems that Mary and Joseph haven’t told Jesus about his origins yet.) And in another scene, when Joseph is about to buy doves for a sacrifice, Jesus asks if “Almighty God” wouldn’t prefer to hear his birds chirping in the morning — which prompts Joseph to forego the sacrifice altogether. (In The Young Messiah, Jesus buys a dove from a woman at the Temple and sets it free.)

There are other nods to Jesus’ adulthood. A few films, such as Mary, Mother of Jesus, have played with the idea that Jesus may have learned some of his teachings from the adults he grew up with, and A Child Called Jesus explores this idea too. Jesus, along with the other Jewish children, spends time with a man who teaches them how to aim their slings at a Roman helmet on a stick, and who tells them that a lost sheep is worth more than all the others “because if it’s lost, that means it needs help.” When Jesus encounters this man again many scenes later — after the man has been arrested and condemned by the Romans — Jesus tells him, “I shall remember those words.” And so one of Jesus’ most famous parables is, here, attributed to a fictitious Zealot.

Sefir is also aware of the prophecies regarding the Messiah, and he taunts Mary with them when he finally captures her and Jesus. He says he can tell Mary all about Jesus’ destiny — including his death — but she says she would rather not hear about that.

There are some other interesting details in this film. For a while, Jesus and his parents live in Alexandria, a city with many Jews (the first scenes in The Young Messiah take place in Alexandria, too), and there are brief nods to Egyptian religion and Egyptian history; at one point Jesus comes across a man who, it is said, witnessed the death of Cleopatra, which would have happened only three or four decades earlier.

One other noteworthy difference between A Child Called Jesus and The Young Messiah: the earlier film is almost twice as long. The Young Messiah is both a shorter time investment and, I would say, a more rewarding film overall, but if you want to see A Child Called Jesus, you can currently watch it via YouTube, below:

Finally, some Bible-movie connections: Rossi previously directed a miniseries adaptation of Quo Vadis? (1985); Clémenti played the Devil in The Milky Way (1969) and Jesus in The Virgin’s Bed (1969), a clip of which you can watch here; and the adult Jesus is played in this film by Alessandro Gassman, who went on to play Amrok in Samson and Delilah (1996) and Joseph in The Holy Family (2006).

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