Review: The Young Messiah (dir. Cyrus Nowrasteh, 2016)

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There have been many movies about Jesus, and even a few that have spent some time on his childhood, but there have been none, to my knowledge, that dwell on what it would have been like for Jesus to grow up with brothers and sisters his own age. Indeed, there are very few films that acknowledge the presence of brothers and sisters in Jesus’ adult life, even though the gospels mention his siblings on several occasions. Thus, one of the best things about The Young Messiah — Cyrus Nowrasteh’s long-awaited adaptation of Anne Rice’s novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt — is the way it focuses on Jesus’ relatives right from its opening scene.

When the film begins, seven-year-old Jesus (Adam Greaves-Neal) is standing in the street, somewhere in Alexandria — his family has been living in Egypt ever since Herod killed the babies in Bethlehem — and he is watching his cousin Salome (Lois Ellington) draw a camel in the sand. You get the sense, from his facial expressions, that Jesus would rather be doing something else, but he patiently waits for Salome to finish what she’s doing — and then some bullies attack him, ostensibly because he’s playing with a girl. All very believable behaviour for children of that age.

But there is a supernatural edge to this scene, too, as a man with bleached-blonde hair — listed in the credits as The Demon (Rory Keenan) — watches the scene unfold. Jesus does not fight back against the bullies, but Salome does, and when the bullies turn to pursue her, Jesus tells them to stop — at which point The Demon causes one of the bullies to trip and fall, thereby killing him. The crowd, prompted by The Demon, accuses Jesus of putting a curse on the boy — and one of the people who believes this accusation is Jesus’ own adopted brother James (Finn McLeod Ireland).

There’s a lot that we can unpack just within those opening scenes.

Take, for instance, the accusation that Jesus cursed the boy, and how this part of the story is redacted from its sources. In the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, Jesus does, in fact, kill a boy with a curse, and the community lives in terror around Jesus because he has a tendency to lash out supernaturally at anyone who offends him. Rice’s novel tones this down a bit, and has Jesus kill the boy accidentally; like little Clark Kent or one of the X-Men, Jesus is more powerful than he knows, and he hasn’t learned how to control his powers yet. But Nowrasteh’s film goes even further and absolves Jesus of any responsibility for the boy’s death whatsoever; now, it is basically the Devil’s fault that the boy died, and Jesus — not for the last time — finds himself bearing the blame for someone else’s actions.

Then there is Jesus’ relationship with James. We know from the New Testament that the brothers of Jesus did not believe in him during his ministry (John 7:5) — indeed they thought he was crazy (Mark 3:21) — but then Jesus appeared to James after rising from the dead (I Corinthians 15:7), and the brothers of Jesus went on to join the apostles and were worshiping with them by the time Pentecost occurred (Acts 1:14). None of this has happened yet when The Young Messiah begins, of course, but the film introduces James as someone who is willing to believe the worst about Jesus, and this points towards the friction that will exist between the brothers when they are adults. But the film also shows moments of closeness between Jesus and his brother, moments that hint at the reconciliations to come.

And then, of course, there is Jesus’ relationship with his “sister” Salome. (In the culture depicted within this film, the word can apply to female cousins, too.) Salome tells Jesus that she believes he can raise the dead boy back to life, the same way he once raised a dead bird (another miracle borrowed, and modified, from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas), and Salome’s belief in Jesus is reminiscent of how Martha believed the adult Jesus could raise her brother Lazarus. (The dead boy is, in fact, named Eleazar — a variation of Lazarus.) By focusing on Jesus’ relationship with Salome, the film suggests that the close friendships Jesus had with his female followers may have had their roots in his relationships with his female kin.

There are other issues raised by the opening scenes in The Young Messiah. Take, for example, the question of violence. Jesus does not fight back against the bullies — he turns the other cheek, as it were — but the bullies do let go of him when Salome strikes them, and if it wasn’t for The Demon’s intervention, Jesus presumably would have had to do something after telling Eleazar to leave Salome alone. In a much later scene, one of Jesus’ adult relatives will even make a point of distinguishing between murder and killing in self-defense. Could Jesus have defended himself from the bullies? Would it have been out of character if he had physically intervened to protect his sister? The adult Jesus brandished a whip and threw the money-changers out of the Temple, which sounds kind of aggressive at least. Could The Young Messiah have foreshadowed that in any way, or would it send kids the wrong message?

The ruckus in the streets soon catches the attention of Jesus’ parents Mary (Sara Lazzaro) and Joseph (Vincent Walsh) — and also the attention of his uncle Cleopas (Me and Orson Welles’ Christian McKay) and his aunt Miriam (Agni Scott). (Technically, Mary and Miriam are the same name in Hebrew, but there are so many Marys in the Bible you can understand why the filmmakers wanted to differentiate the two sisters-in-law like this.) And matters aren’t helped when Jesus does, in fact, raise Eleazar from the dead — which just makes the neighbours look at Jesus and his family even more strangely. Fortunately, it turns out Herod the Great has recently died, so the family decides it will be safe to live in Nazareth again.

But the journey back home isn’t entirely safe. The path to Nazareth is filled with perils — Romans battling Jewish rebels, a woman killing a rapist in self-defense, and rows of crosses guarded by soldiers and fierce-looking dogs — and along the way, Jesus’ uncle Cleopas comes down with an illness, which forces Jesus to make a choice: will he let his uncle die, or will he heal his uncle and, by doing so, attract the same sort of unwanted attention that the family left Egypt to get away from in the first place?

Even worse, rumours of Jesus’ survival have reached the ears of Herod’s successor, who orders Severus (Sean Bean) — a Roman centurion who took part in the Bethlehem slaughter — to find the boy and kill him. And as Severus follows the clues, there are other acts of violence and intimidation; at one point Severus interrogates a man who is already hanging on a cross, and then mercy-kills him with his gladius. (Parental advisory: the actual violence — the gory stuff — is kept off-screen, but the camera stays on the crucified man’s face, and there is no mistaking the painful gasps and spasms as the sword is thrust into his body.)

The subplot with Herod and Severus is not in Anne Rice’s novel, and for me it is the film’s weakest and most problematic aspect. For one thing, it adds levels of violence to the story that make the film less family-friendly than it clearly wants to be. For another, it hinges on contrivances, such as a toy camel that a stranger gives to Jesus as they’re sailing out of Egypt; this toy — which isn’t that unique, and could easily have been lost — becomes the primary means of identifying Jesus long after he has journeyed all the way to Nazareth and then turned around and gone back south to Jerusalem.

The recurring appearances of The Demon also didn’t work for me as well as they could have, partly because they sometimes interfered with the agency of the human characters. People are capable of hatred and suspicion on their own and don’t always need a devil whispering in their ears. Plus, I had to stifle a laugh when The Demon taunts Jesus and yells, “Chaos rules, and I am its prince!” I know the line is in Rice’s novel, and thus predates Lars von Trier’s Antichrist by a few years, but still.

The real narrative arc of the film concerns the fact that Jesus has questions about himself and his origins, and his parents haven’t answered them yet. And here is where the film’s real strength lies.

Philippians 2 tells us that Jesus “emptied himself” or “made himself nothing” when he became human, Luke 2 tells us that Jesus was still growing “in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man” when he was 12 years old, and even the adult Jesus admitted that there were some things he still did not know (cf. Mark 13) — so the film is on firm ground in depicting Jesus as a boy who hasn’t figured everything out yet, including who he is. As my friend Steven D. Greydanus has put it, one of the really interesting things about this film is how it imagines that “the Messianic secret” was, for a time, kept secret even from the Messiah himself!

But eventually (and this might be a spoiler, though it’s the first thing the trailer shows us), Jesus does learn who he is, and Greaves-Neal does a masterful job of conveying the confusion, for lack of a better word, that Jesus feels when he first lets this information sink in. “But we’re all children of God,” he says — and he’s right. But he’s more than that, too, and the film affirms that every step of the way.

The performances are all pretty good, though Mary and Joseph spend most of their screentime expressing various degrees of concern; McKay, as Mary’s outspoken, opinionated and slightly sexist older brother Cleopas, seems to be having the most fun, at least where the adults are concerned. Harry Potter fans might recognize David Bradley (a.k.a. Hogwarts caretaker Argus Filch) as a rabbi who probes Jesus’ knowledge of the scriptures. And the score, by John Debney (an Oscar nominee for his work on The Passion of the Christ) is beautifully stirring and atmospheric.

The Young Messiah isn’t flawless, but it captures several aspects of the Jesus story that have rarely ever been developed — and developed this well — in other films about Jesus, and for that, it is a worthy addition to the genre’s canon.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his award-winning film column for that paper, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He has also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005) and The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of the Bible and Its Reception in Film (De Gruyter, 2016).