Now that we’re a few weeks from Easter, it’s about time for a feature-length film about the life of Jesus. And sure enough, one has arrived on the scene—The Young Messiah. There is a twist, however: Jesus doesn’t die in this one. Instead, we get to see a glimpse of his life “inspired by Scripture and rooted in history,” as the introduction notes. But it’s a glimpse that may ruffle the feathers of long-going churchgoers and theologians alike. More about that later in the review. The film itself is well-done, with nice production values and good acting performances from the lead characters. More than likely, it will do as well or better than the recent film Risen featuring Ralph Fiennes.
The Young Messiah (no relation to Handel’s masterpiece; this is based on the Anne Rice novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt) begins in an odd place for a film featuring Christ—Alexandria, Egypt. Joseph (Vincent Walsh) has heeded the command of the angel and taken the family out of Israel due to Herod’s plan to worship Jesus by killing him. When we first see him, something is different. He’s . . . a 7 year-old kid. He’s also being picked on and beat up by his cousin Eleazar, who walks away, slips on an eaten apple, hits his head on a rock, and dies. The eaten apple is provided by a demon in black (Rory Keenan, looking like the stereotypical Jesus in Sunday School materials), who follows Jesus (Adam Greaves-Neal) around throughout the film. When nobody is looking, Jesus goes into the room where Eleazar’s body is located, asks him to get up, and the dead boy comes to life—but not before kicking Jesus a few times. It seems Jesus has brought things to life before—in a flashback, the viewer sees a bird return to life in his hands.
Herod dies and the family returns to Israel, but not before Joseph and Mary (Sara Lazzaro) have a discussion that involves the line, “How do we explain God to his own son?” Yes, Jesus doesn’t quite understand his role in the redemption of the world—I doubt many 7 year-olds would. In the meantime, Herod’s son wants Christ killed and sends the Roman centurion Severus (Sean Bean) to make it happen. Through many close calls, Joseph and the family return to Galilee, but are not too far from being captured by Severus and his squad. It’s when Jesus asks his parents to go to the Temple in Jerusalem for Passover that the film takes off (and before you ask, he does not say, “Did you not know I had to be in my Father’s house?”). This leads to a powerful confrontation between the young Jesus and Severus that is quite well-done.
I’m sure many Christians are going to have difficulty reconciling the film to their own understanding of Scripture due to 1) Jesus’ age (the first mention we get of him outside of the Wise Men is when he’s 12 years old) and 2) his limited understanding of the role he would play to save the world. But in the context of the film itself, both work pretty well (remember: it’s inspired by Scripture, not Scripture). Director Cyrus Nowrastah takes care to cater to the faith-based audience (the Scripture verse at the beginning is taken from the ESV—I checked) and Jesus’ interactions with the rabbis are powerful. When Joseph and Mary take the family on a path lined with crosses, they quote Psalm 23 in its entirety.
Of course, it’s important to note that Jesus was eventually on a road in his earthly life that would lead to death via crucifixion (and later, resurrection). The Young Messiah doesn’t provide an alternative to that option, so it stays true to what Scripture implies in that aspect. The end result is a surprisingly watchable film that makes a person think, reflect, and (hopefully) discuss with others. And isn’t that what we want to do as we approach Easter?