Los Angeles, Calif., Mar 11, 2016 / 11:51 am (CNA).- Cyrus Nowrasteh has spent his entire life caught in between cultural viewpoints. Born in the U.S., his parents moved him back to their native Iran as a boy for several years, and he was drawn to visit again as a young adult.
But it’s in his faith journey and his career as a filmmaker that Nowrasteh has really found himself caught in between worlds. Raised secularly by his culturally Muslim parents, Nowrasteh began a long conversion to Christianity after marrying his Christian wife in 1981.
And as a veteran writer-director, he has managed to upset both conservatives who took issue with his 2001 movie “The Day Reagan Was Shot,” and liberals who expressed umbrage over his 2006 ABC miniseries “The Path to 9/11.”
After taking on the brutality of radical Islam’s Sharia law in the 2009 film “The Stoning of Soraya M.”, he’s back this weekend with his biggest chance at a success yet: the superb, family-friendly new movie “The Young Messiah,” based on Anne Rice’s smash novel “Christ the Lord,” both of which speculate on what Jesus was like as a child growing into understanding His divine nature.
“My journey to Christianity was a long one but it seemed very natural to step up and do this movie when it became possible as an opportunity for us to explore,” says Nowrasteh. “When you do advance test screenings, you learn a lot, and we found that when we named it ‘Christ the Lord,’ people thought it was either about His whole life or as an adult. It didn’t indicate that it’s about Him as a 7-year-old.”
When it was published in 2008, Rice’s novel “Christ the Lord” created a sensation on multiple fronts. Having been known for decades as the author of the erotically charged “Lestat Chronicles” novel series, Rice drew great attention for her announcement that she had re-embraced her faith in Christianity, albeit without a commitment to any particular church.
But the speculative fiction struck a chord with believers and non-believers alike, drawing widespread praise and becoming a massive best-seller. She reached out to Nowrasteh to adapt the novel after being impressed with “Soraya,” which recounted the true story of an Iranian woman who was falsely accused of adultery and then brutally stoned to death under Sharia law.
Rice and Nowrasteh were represented by the same agents, and soon a deal was in place for the adaptation to begin. Yet it took eight years for the project to finally hit theatres this Friday, due to several unusual factors including funding fallout in 2013.
“The novel is written in the first person voice of Jesus, which was a bold choice on her part but that made it a very internal novel,” says Nowrasteh. “We had to make choices to make the story external.
“But the biggest challenge is you’ve got a multimillion-dollar production balancing on the head of a 7-year-old actor,” he continues. “Director Mike Nichols was offered ‘The Exorcist’ many years ago but turned it down, saying ‘I’m not going to hang my career on a kid.’ You’ve got tremendous challenges working with kids. There’s not a long resume, you can only film them four hours a day so your planning has to be really careful, and you’ve got to be sure this kid can do it, and comes prepared because there’s no chance to rehearse. You have to think long and hard before you do a movie starring a 7-year-old.”
Nowrasteh assures those who might be concerned about any speculation on Jesus’ childhood that both Rice’s novel and his movie portray Jesus as “without sin,” and that “a lot of priests and religious people…love the book. He also says that Rice studied Jesus’ story and researched the society he grew up in to the point where “she was almost like a theologian herself.”
There were multiple challenges in making “Soraya,” including having to shoot the sad tale in remoter areas of Jordan in order to avoid Islamic backlash. The difficult subject matter also made for an emotionally harrowing experience at times, but Nowrasteh is proud of that achievement.
“I constantly run into people who’ve seen it, and it only played on 75 screens as an arthouse release,” says Nowrasteh. “The people who have the biggest problem were the Iranian government, and we smuggled 20,000 copies into Iran and thousands of copies were made from those. It became an underground hit.”
After that struggle and the bleakness of making “Soraya,” Nowrasteh is happy that “Messiah” has proven to be a positive experience. While it took six years of hard work and negotiations to finally get the greenlight to make the film, he found a major advocate in producer Chris Columbus, who has maintained one of Hollywood’s lucrative careers as the writer or director behind such classic hits as “Gremlins” and “Home Alone.”
“I’ve worked with Chris Columbus developing projects that didn’t get the light of day and he responded immediately, and got it funded,” says Nowrasteh. “This is a great opportunity, because it’s a beautiful story, a movie for the whole family, a journey into the light. Or, as Chris likes to say, it’s the greatest story never told.”
“The Young Messiah” opens nationwide Friday.
Carl Kozlowski is a professional film critic and essayist. His movie reviews for CNA can be found here.
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