The Young Messiah is a movie that—and this is so important the film tells you this explicitly in a title card before the movie even begins—imagines a year in the life of Jesus when he was seven years old. Based on Anne Rice’s novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, the movie takes the few facts we have about Christ’s childhood (his family escaped to Egypt to avoid Herod the Great’s paranoid child slaughter and then returned to Nazareth after Herod the Great’s death), and fills in the rest. Some of this shading is based in ancient folklore about the boy Jesus. The rest is new.
The story follows Jesus (living-Kuleshov-effect Adam Greaves-Neal) and his family as they return home. Jesus works many miracles, and these miracles draw the attention of the newly installed Herod Antipas who, like his father, is afraid of a messiah rising up to usurp his throne. Antipas (an unhinged Jonathan Bailey) puts a Centurion, Severus (a serious-as-a-heart-attack Sean Bean), on the hunt. The Young Messiah follows both the boy Jesus’ journey of discovering who he is and Severus’ journey of deciding whether or not to kill the boy. Given that Jesus dies on a cross as a man and not on a Centurion’s sword as a boy, there is no tension in whether or not Severus will kill Jesus, though the movie tries to pretend there is, to its detriment.
Much more compelling are the supporting characters who surround Jesus. Joseph is played by Vincent Walsh, who makes you really believe the one description we have of Joseph as a “noble man,” and Mary is played by Sara Lazzaro, a woman whose tenacious beauty might convert you to Catholicism. The couple has rarely been so completely realized in film. Setting the story at this point in Jesus’ life when Mary and Joseph are eight years into heeding dreams they believe are from God for all their major life decisions allows us a glimpse into the hardships particular to the real people who were tasked with shepherding the boy-God into becoming the God-man. Their marriage is also familiar to any couple who seeks God’s guidance for their major life decisions. Doing so requires faith in God and in each other. Mary and Joseph’s story at all points in Jesus’ life (instead of just around his birth) is a story I’d love to see. I found what little of it we get in The Young Messiah to be moving and impactful.
The Young Messiah is the kind of movie about Jesus that would be better if it was in black and white and silent with inter-titles and without a score. No one would probably go see it, but at least it was feel like the kind of movies about Jesus that were made when faith was embraced societally. The Young Messiah is an earnest movie that accepts the divinity of Christ without a hint of cynicism. The boy Jesus may be questioning who he is throughout the film, but he does so not as a doubter, but as a boy who is puzzled by his powers. (Seriously, this is like a first-century superhero origin story.) He’s seeking an explanation, not confirmation. Once again, because we know the outcome, there isn’t much tension in his search and there isn’t much revelation for us in what he learns. What does he learn? “I am the Messiah.” Okay, but I knew that going in. It’s right there in the title. There are a few brief moments when Jesus runs around and plays like a child. I enjoyed those, because they show us a Jesus unlike the ones we’ve seen on screen before.
That’s another reason why the supporting characters’ stories are so compelling. Their stories are surprising. At one point, Sarah (Jane Lapotaire) confronts a trio of Roman soldiers who are threatening the holy family. The way she diffuses the situation is one of the most delightful and intriguing moments in the story. The movie does not make the case that perhaps Jesus grew in wisdom by watching the actions of the good women and men around him, but it could have. And the moments when this almost happens are more magical than any of Jesus’ precocious miracles.
Ultimately, The Young Messiah is a curiosity that’s worth your attention if you like “Jesus movies.” Even though I don’t think it’s a great film, it at least approaches Jesus in a different way and makes room for us to glean new insights into the story around Jesus story. Primarily it accomplishes this through its supporting characters, but at least it does this well.
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