Anne Rice’s novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, has been brought to the screen by Cyrus and Betsy Nowrasteh as The Young Messiah. The drama imagines the life of Jesus at age seven, and tells us of his family journey back to Galilee from Egypt.
Imagination is a place of abundant hope, and is another word for faith, the part of us most often praised by Jesus. So my hopes were high for this film.
Sadly, I found the film to be a little bird that could not fly. The weight of doctrine kept this story earth-bound despite its fluttering moments, tied to traditional piety about the submission of the people around Jesus.
The story is derivative, drawing details from the Bible, from Harry Potter, and from Mel Gibson’s controversial but popular film The Passion of the Christ.
From Harry Potter comes Jesus as a child with magical powers his quest for answers about who he is, why he is different, what all this means. Harry Potter has the power to defeat bullies by throwing them across the room without touching them.
The young Jesus has the power to bring dead people back to life. The film opens with him being bullied, and when the bully stumbles and hits his head on a rock, dying instantly, Jesus’ who has already brought a dead bird to life, revives the nasty fellow. And so begins a story of a child who is entirely fixated on the power to overcome death, even at age seven.
Everything about this child reflects the adult Jesus at his height of power. And so there is no story of growing here, no story of a childhood jumble of interests among which his spiritual powers can be glimpsed and then grow stronger. In a terribly important way, this is not a story of childhood. It is a story of a small Jesus who is exactly like tall Jesus will be.
Harry Potter grows in the midst of two worlds – a world of people who are uncomprehending and resent him, and a world of people who do understand him and are quite like him. They, too, have spiritual powers, and they teach Harry to master his.
But this film (and presumably Anne Rice) cannot bear the thought that Jesus has anything to learn, so no one is able, or allowed, to teach Jesus anything. The entire tradition of calling Jesus Master, is lost in this child whose divinity overwhelms his humanity. At the end of the film Jesus delivers a monologue about being a child in order to enjoy life and delight in it, but the movie never for a moment lets us see that.
In scenes where some teaching could happen, people, in submission, are silent. His parents are too much in awe of him to offer him instruction.
When his mother does finally tell him of the angel and his birth, it is cast entirely around his divinity and her submission to that. She whispers, away from the hearing of others. So unlike Harry Potter, Jesus gains no circle of supportive friends with whom he can work on solving problems. He is the problem. And, he is the answer to all problems.
From Gibson’s film, this film takes a visible Devil, a blond-haired, black-cloaked fellow whom only Jesus (not even his parents) can see, and whose focus is entirely on the child, trying to defeat him every day.
None of this is biblical, of course. In Scripture, Jesus and his parents return to Israel when he is two, not seven. He is not that much of an Egyptian. And the Devil never appears till after he is baptized by John, when he goes into the wilderness.
The film does present the biblical tale of a twelve year old Jesus in the temple amazing rabbis , but shows us this in a seven year old Jesus who knows everything. He has nothing to learn.
Always, the focus is on death. Why not on recovery of sight? Or sympathy for the poor? Or loving the good times he spots in honky tonks along the road? (The Bible does tell us Jesus loved parties.) Jesus was great at making friends, we know. Why can’t he have some in this film?
Then, there’s the posse, sent out to get the one seven year old male they somehow know survived Bethlehem. An insane and delusional Herod has sent the posse. But Scripture tells us Joseph returned from Egypt because the wicked Herod had died and his son was less wicked. It is not till decades later, when yet another evil Herod is on the throne, that Jesus is in danger again.
There’s a posse in the new film Risen, as well, chasing the disciples after Easter. The posse makes space in each film for an interesting Roman soldier, who adds a note of honest skepticism we viewers particularly need, someone the rest of us can identify with. And someone, thank, God, not dressed in horrible church-pageant-like, soiled, wrinkled, un-ironed, shapeless, colorless robes. There is really no evidence first-century people dressed this way, and certainly none that says they all wore beige.
If you want to see a new faith film in Easter season, Risen, which captures the spirit of Jesus so well, is far more worthy than The Young Messiah. Risen understand that peace and love, not death, are Jesus’ word and work.
Perhaps another year, someone will offer a film to tell us about the Child we all long to know.
1.freeze frame from The Young Messiah, image fromPatheos.com.
2. Risen movie poster, image from freerepublic.com.