Who has time to answer a child’s questions amidst racial strife, religious conflict, and a refugee crisis? There is so much uncertainty and anger surrounding our search for a new leader, threats can lead to violence at any moment. And if we fail to see the parallels being the tumultuous ancient world that Jesus entered and our context today, then we’ve missed the poignant, life affirming point of the captivating new movie, The Young Messiah.
Opening in movie theaters this weekend, The Young Messiah is a remarkably humane, respectful, and illuminating portrait of the Savior as a Young Man. Based upon Anne Rice’s rigorously researched and imaginative novel, Christ the Lord, The Young Messiah takes us inside the Holy Family’s struggle to raise the most gifted child. When should they talk to their extraordinary son about his origins? And how to protect their seven-year old from the forces which seek to sabotage his future? In Joseph and Mary’s struggle, we recognize our own tensions regarding how much to reveal and how much to conceal from our growing children. Even the holiest of families wrestles with secrets.
The Young Messiah also suggests how many questions of identity may have haunted the Christ child. Hollywood has crafted so many stories about a boy badgering his mother for the truth about his father. It is interesting to consider the internal tensions a young Jesus would have had in regards to his truly super powers. Amongst key questions explored: did Jesus always have the power to heal? Would he have played tricks with the weather to please his parents? What would it be like to have Jesus as a baby brother or cousin? The Young Messiah offers a refreshing alternative to the parade of Marvel origin stories.
The strongest scenes in The Young Messiah plunge us into the political tensions of the era. What was it like to be a family on the run, seeking refuge from a mad ruler bent on genocide? How would the presence of an occupying Roman army and a steady Jewish insurgency have shaped Jesus’ subsequent ministry? How did the different cultures Jesus encountered in ancient Alexandria or enroute from Egypt back to Palestine alter his understanding? And where might Jesus have developed his special compassion towards prostitutes and others deemed ritually unclean in the temple? While Mary and Joseph attempt to shield Jesus from the grim realities of crucifixion, the ugliness of the charged geo-politics in ancient Israel cannot be avoided. The young messiah is raised amidst ‘a world on fire.’
While viewers may initially balk at the British accent of Adam Greaves-Neal as young Jesus, over time the consistency and compassion of his performance prevails. He comes across as energetic, observant, and genuinely interested in his surroundings. Sean Bean stands out as one of the few recognizable stars amongst the excellent, mostly British cast. He plays Severus, a Roman centurion tasked by Herod Antipas to exterminate the threat of a Jewish Messiah from Bethlehem. Having shed considerable bloodshed for Herod the Great’s slaughter of innocent Jewish boys, Severus wrestles with the impetuous king’s orders.
Filmmakers Cyrus and Betsy Nowrasteh adapt Anne Rice’s fascinating speculative fiction with considerable care. The Young Messiah fills in the considerable gaps in our knowledge and understanding of Jesus, the early years. Rice’s novel aroused some critique for her portrayal of a Jesus who turns clay pigeons into real birds or loses his temper and curses a boy to instant death. While Rice drew upon accounts from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, The Young Messiah alters these scenes to conform to a more Orthodox understanding of Jesus as a boy who nevertheless remains fully divine.
Some may question the formidable presence of a Satanic figure throughout the drama. This attractive demon exerts considerable influence by simply whispering in people’s ears. Yet, his ignorance in regards to the big picture of God’s plans for Jesus correlates with scripture. The devil may have the ability to suggest and cajole, but he ultimately proves impotent when confronted by the young Jesus.
The Young Messiah came together despite considerable production setbacks. A surprising coalition that ranges from producer Chris Columbus (of Goonies, Home Alone, and Harry Potter fame) to Korea’s CJ Entertainment joined forces to create this faith-affirming picture. The scenery is gorgeous. The attention to detail found in the Italian locations (where both The Gospel According to St. Matthew and The Passion of the Christ were filmed) is admirable. And yet, I fear that audiences may have reached a saturation point. Underserved Christian moviegoers that made The Passion into a massive box office hit over a decade ago may not find enough blood in The Young Messiah to rouse them from their homes.
Like Sony’s recent Risen, The Young Messiah is exactly the heartfelt, rigorous, and inspiring entertainment we’ve allegedly been clamoring for. It treats both the biblical sources and the audience with the utmost respect. It was produced by sincere, faith-fueled professionals and is being released by Focus Features, a mainstream distributor of the highest caliber and taste. It is consummate family entertainment, satisfying to all ages. And yet, it hasn’t mustered hardly any passion on social media, barely a shrug.
During this election season, we seem more hungry for blood than redemption. The love that rises above a tumultuous ancient Israel could be quite instructive during our current days of rage. And yet, I suspect the box office receipts will reveal we revel in anger rather than the sheer joy that the boy Jesus embraces–the gift of life itself.
The Young Messiah invites us to consider the faithfulness of Mary, Joseph, and their extended family. It allows children to see a Jesus who deals with questions and tensions similar to their own. And it challenges us to see and feel all of the human experience, even when it hurts. What a remarkable gift during a Lenten season of reflection and preparation.