The Young Messiah, which came out on DVD yesterday, isn’t the first movie to spend more than a scene or two on Jesus when he was a boy. It isn’t even the second. A few months ago I reviewed A Child Called Jesus, a 1987 film that has some striking parallels to The Young Messiah. Now I’d like to take a brief look at The Holy Family, a two-part TV-movie that has fewer parallels but is still interesting in its own way.
The Holy Family is directed by Raffaele Mertes, whose credits include two films in the Bible Collection (Esther and The Apocalypse) and a series of four films about the gospels’ supporting characters, known collectively as ‘Close to Jesus’ or ‘The Friends of Jesus’. I have not seen those last four films, but one of them was about Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus, so The Holy Family — which follows the relationship between Joseph and Mary from their first meeting to Joseph’s death — actually marks the second time that Mertes made a film about this character (similar to how Roger Young made two films about Jesus and two films about Jacob and his family).
The Holy Family also has an interesting connection to A Child Called Jesus, via the actor Alessandro Gassman. In the earlier film, Gassman played the adult Jesus in scenes where the young Jesus had premonitions of his future. And in this film, which was made nearly two decades later, Gassman plays Joseph the father of Jesus.
The Holy Family is not a particularly good film — for reasons I’ll get to in a moment — but it does do some interesting, unique and even valuable things.
For starters, this is the only film I can think of that depicts Joseph as a middle-aged widower — and a father, to boot — when he and Mary become engaged.1
The Orthodox and Catholic traditions have always held that Mary was a virgin for her entire life, and that the brothers and sisters of Jesus, who are mentioned throughout the New Testament, were technically either his step-siblings or his cousins. But most Protestants today assume that the siblings of Jesus were the children of Mary.
Most films have avoided this issue by never mentioning the brothers and sisters, and it is common for films about the Nativity to portray Mary and Joseph as young lovers who are close to each other in age — so most films have left the viewer to assume that the siblings of Jesus were either the future children of Mary or more distant sorts of relatives, like cousins. Most films have not allowed for the possibility that the siblings of Jesus were his step-siblings, i.e. the children of Joseph by a previous wife.2
In The Holy Family, on the other hand, Joseph is quite clearly identified as a widower who has two sons and a daughter. Joseph is also 40 years old, or more than twice the age of Mary, and one of his sons, i.e. James, is roughly the same age as her.
And here’s where things get really interesting. Because James and Mary are about the same age, James develops a romantic interest in her and offers to marry her to cover up the family’s shame when she becomes pregnant. Later, when Joseph and Mary return to Nazareth after hiding in Egypt with Jesus for almost a decade, Joseph asks if James will be giving him any grandchildren soon — and James replies bitterly that it seems Joseph would rather have more children of his own than grandchildren.
That’s just one of the ways in which the film imagines how people on the periphery of the biblical story would have reacted to the relationships within that story. Another example: when Joseph returns from Jerusalem with his bride — who has been assigned to him by the priests as per a passage from the Infancy Gospel of James — it is revealed that one of the women in Nazareth had hoped that she would marry him. Her ongoing presence lends a sort of “what might have been” quality to the scenes in which Joseph realizes life with Mary will be a lot stranger than he thought.
The focus on Joseph’s children — as well as his other close relatives (he lives next door to his brother Cleopas, Cleopas’s wife Mary and their children) — adds a new and interesting dimension to some of the more familiar bits from the Bible.
For example, when Mary visits Elizabeth, Joseph’s second son Judas goes with her — presumably to help keep her safe on the journey.
And when Jesus goes missing on the way home from Jerusalem, Joseph and Mary initially assume that he is with Judas… and then with Joseph’s daughter Sarah and her husband… and so on. Luke 2 says Joseph and Mary “began looking for him among their relatives”, but it is so rare to see those relatives depicted onscreen, that you have to give this movie points for including them, and not just in that one scene.
Half the movie takes place before Jesus is even born, so there isn’t a lot of overlap between this film and The Young Messiah, but the two movies do have a few things in common.
For example, Jesus performs miracles — including at least one resurrection — and this scares the neighbours, which forces Joseph and Mary to move from one town to another. Jesus is also at least eight years old when Herod dies (he’s seven in the other film), which pushes the date of his birth much earlier than the gospels indicate.3
There is also a scene in which Joseph encourages Jesus to set a bird free even though it has an injured wing. This is different from, but still parallel to, the scenes in A Child Called Jesus and The Young Messiah in which Jesus intervenes to prevent the sacrifice of birds and, in the latter film, sets the bird in question free.
Throughout this film, Mertes does what he can to make the characters “relatable”, to make them seem just like us. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
For example, I liked the way the baby Jesus pees on Joseph’s shirt — been there, done that! — but I’m not sure I cared for Jesus being a typical grumpy kid who says he doesn’t want to go to school. (He does, at least, show that he knows his stuff when he’s in the classroom, quoting passages from Isaiah that the teacher isn’t expecting, etc.)
And the cozy pillow talk (including at least one kiss) between Joseph and Mary seems to be at odds somewhat with Mary’s declaration at the end of the film that she has never “known a man”. It’s not impossible that Mary and Joseph lay next to each other for all those years without having sex, but if they truly believed there was something so holy about Jesus’ birth that Mary should be celibate for the rest of her life, then it’s not hard to think of less… tempting… arrangements that they could have tried.
Admittedly, Mertes doesn’t know how to deal with the “holy” stuff all that well.
The Annunciation starts off on a strongly cinematic note — gusts of wind compelling Mary to go indoors, where she sees a bright light shining through a window, like a supercharged version of the Annunciation in Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth — but then the film cuts abruptly to Joseph dragging Mary out of the house and yelling that the “voices” she heard were demons. (So much for sending her away quietly?)
And Joseph himself is never visited by angels: not when he’s deciding whether to marry Mary, and not when Herod’s soldiers arrive in Bethlehem. (In this telling of the story, Mary and Joseph flee the city after the soldiers arrive, not before.)
Gassman’s Joseph is often quite angry, and the way he keeps blowing his top leads to an interesting exchange in which Joseph comes to think that Jesus might really be the Messiah, and he tells Mary it bothers him that he may have slapped the Messiah across the face while disciplining him. Mary replies, “If it’s an act of love, why not? God himself is moved by acts of love.” So, um, make whatever you will of that.
There’s also a bit of Bible-movie “fan service”. One of Jesus’ neighbours in Egypt turns out to be a young girl named Mary, whose parents came from Magdala — and at one point little Mary Magdalene kisses him. It’s like a prequel to The Da Vinci Code.
So there’s a mix of things that work and things that don’t in this film — but the film as a whole is so sloppily put together that you might not want to wade through it all.
For one thing, the actors all speak English in a variety of accents that are sometimes unintelligible, especially where the young Jesus is concerned. I swear, if it weren’t for the closed captioning, I wouldn’t have known what he was saying half the time.
And the film is replete with abrupt scene transitions which, combined with the odd running time (89 minutes for Part 1, 70 minutes for Part 2), leads me to think that the original broadcast version of this film was somewhat longer than the DVD version. But why the editors would have cut the scenes that they did — the film even cuts from Mary and Joseph looking for Jesus in Jerusalem to Mary and Joseph traveling home with Jesus, without the moment in the temple where they actually find Jesus — makes no sense to me. (For what it’s worth, the IMDb says the film should be 200 minutes — but is that before or after the commercial breaks are taken out of the equation?)
So on one level, this film is definitely less well-made than The Young Messiah or even A Child Called Jesus. But it does do some interesting things that those films don’t. Here’s hoping a better set of filmmakers can explore those angles some day.
1. The IMDb entry for Joseph of Nazareth, the first film Mertes made about Mary and Joseph, says Joseph is a widower in that film too — albeit one who is 35 rather than 40 — but it does not say whether the Joseph of that film has any children. I may have to watch that film for myself soon.
2. The Young Messiah straddles the traditions somewhat by giving Jesus a slightly older brother, i.e. James, and revealing that he is a cousin who was adopted by Joseph, presumably after his parents died — but as far as we know, the Joseph of that film never had any other wives.
3. Luke 3 says Jesus was “about thirty years old” during or after “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar”, i.e. AD 28. If Jesus was eight years old when Herod died in 4 BC, then he would have been born in 12 BC, and he would have been about forty during the fifteenth year of Tiberius’s reign.