Last Friday (3/11/16) The Young Messiah opened in theaters across the country, the film stars Adam Greaves-Neal as the young boy Jesus (at age seven), and was directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh (The Stoning of Soraya M). Having eagerly awaited this movie for months, I finally treated myself to a viewing of the film and thought I might write a brief review on it.
The Young Messiah is a film based on famed author Anne Rice’s novel, “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt” which she wrote after returning to the Catholic faith of her youth, although I have heard that she has since left the Church again. However, I am not sure if that means she has left the Catholic Church specifically, or the Christian faith entirely. Regardless, I found Rice’s book to be a fascinating piece of biblical historical fiction: exploring the theological wonder of Jesus Christ’s incarnation and childhood. I say fiction, because the Gospels tell us next to nothing about the childhood of Jesus. In that regard, all we have are two narratives on his birth from Matthew & Luke, along with one episode at the Temple (from Luke) when Jesus was twelve years old, and that’s it. Therefore, exploring the topic of Jesus’ childhood is one that would naturally lend itself to much imagination for any daring author or filmmaker.
Admittedly, I must confess that as a Christian, I have always been fascinated with this particular subject. Specifically, how and when did Jesus know who he was? Although many believers today, I suspect, would simply assume that Jesus, being fully divine, always had all the answers. However, this thinking neglects to account for his humanity. Jesus was both fully divine and fully human. After all, the scriptures reveal that Jesus had to grow in both knowledge and wisdom (Luke 2:52). In other words, he had to learn, just like all the rest of us. Therefore, trying to portray God Incarnate, while striking the proper balance between Jesus’ divinity and humanity, would be a daunting task for any author or filmmaker. Once more, making things especially even more difficult, as previously mentioned, is that the Gospels offer few details of this particular time in Jesus’ life, and there are no other sources of information, unless you consider the various “infancy gospels” outside the New Testament. For these reasons, this is a most challenging topic for anyone to take on, and the potential for great controversy is obvious. However, I am pleased to announce that director Nowrasteh, and his writing partner (and wife) Betsy (who are both Christians themselves), pulled it off (at least in my opinion). In the film, they magnify the book’s more intriguing imaginations, while avoiding and rectifying the more controversial ones.
For instance, one of the book’s more intriguing episodes is an encounter between the young Jesus, and Satan, which Nowrasteh has expanded on and worked in throughout the movie. This artistic drama was fascinating to watch, as Satan, in the film’s depiction, senses that there is something extra worldly and out of the ordinary about this young boy named Jesus, but isn’t exactly sure what that is – and neither is Jesus. Meanwhile the most controversial episode from the entire book is diffused by Nowrasteh at the beginning of the film. In the opening of the book, Rice borrowed from the highly controversial Infancy Gospel of Thomas. This particular “infancy gospel” portrays Jesus as a little divine “infant terrible” who strikes others down in anger, or transforms playmates into goats, and is constantly being scolded by his parents, who have to teach him to use his powers for good. Of course, this is NOT the Jesus of the Gospels, nor the one portrayed in Rice’s book. Nevertheless, she borrowed the premise from this non-biblical text that as a young child, Jesus, could strike one dead with his words. However, in Rice’s imagining, this was NOT the intention or desire of young Jesus. He was being picked on by a bully, and simply wanted him to stop. Once more, he performs the miracle of bringing the young bully back to life after the incident. Meanwhile, in the movie, Nowrasteh eliminates the controversy altogether; depicting Satan as the culprit who killed the boy then blaming Jesus, who then brings the bully back to life.
One brief observation on the “infancy gospels” since I broached the subject. These were non biblical legends and fictional imaginings about the childhood of Jesus. The earliest works of this genre date to the late second century, but most range from the third to the ninth century. There is no evidence any of these works were regarded as sacred scripture, although the Protevangelium (pre-gospel) was certainly highly regarded in some circles — this work is more about Mary than Jesus, and where the Catholic Church gets many of their traditions regarding Mary. However, concerning the “infancy gospels” themselves, they typically fell into one of two categories. The first were overly divine and pious in their depictions, i.e. someone sick could walk into the same room as the infant Jesus and was immediately healed, or Jesus was portrayed as speaking from birth – a story from which the Quran later borrows. The second category was irreverent if not downright blasphemous, i.e. the aforementioned “infant terrible” depictions. The early Church spoke out against many of these texts for various reasons. But enough on that, as I am getting sidetracked from the review. I will just note that author Anne Rice, in response to the controversy of using “early legends” as a plot device in her novel (Out of Egypt), had this to say on the subject in the author’s notes from the paperback edition:
“I would like to make clear here: the material I used in this novel, pertaining to Our Lord’s childhood … has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with these late date Gnostic gospels. Nothing at all. What I used is best described as ‘early legends’ pertaining to the life of Christ … In using some of these legends, I sought not to attack orthodox beliefs in any way, … In fact, it is frustrating that a book, which affirms the orthodox belief in the Incarnation of Christ as this book does, would be mistakenly connected in anyone’s mind with Gnosticism, a heresy which does not value the human nature of Our Lord at all. For me, the legends helped to imagine a concrete world in which Our Lord lived and breathed as God and Man; I did not respond to any Docetism in them whatsoever.”
That said, as previously discussed, the Nowrastehs succeed in reimagining the few “legends” borrowed by Rice, and better bring them into line with orthodox Christian imagination. Once more, the film was still able to find various ways to draw on the actual biblical Gospels, i.e. recalling biblical events such as the Slaughter of the Innocents or Visit by the Magi — plus foreshadowing other events as Jesus’ impressing the Teachers of the Law, the Baptism in the Jordan or the Destruction of Jerusalem. In other words, the film does not violate the spirit of the biblical Gospels.
Additionally, the film offers a striking vision of the Holy Family, although in order to appeal to both Catholics and Protestants alike, it presents his siblings as “cousins” verse actual siblings. Note, the novel depicted his siblings as step-siblings. I have stated in previous posts my contention that these were in fact younger blood siblings, as this is what the Gospels actually indicate. But that is just nitpicking on my part.
One other change from the book, is the subplot of Herod Antipas (son of King Herod) coming to believe that a child of Bethlehem may have escaped his father’s purge. Thus, a Roman Centurion, played by Sean Bean (Troy, National Treasure), is summoned to investigate, track down and eliminate the child. Again, this is a brilliant fictional depiction or imagining that is still keeping in line with the Gospels, i.e. Matthew hinted that the Holy Family was still in danger from Herod’s son after returning to Nazareth (Matthew 2:21-23). Although, the film only depicts Herod Antipas and not his half brother Herod Archelaus. Regardless, this addition adds a more periling subplot to the film.
This plot device makes Jesus’ identity a very dangerous secret, just as it was during Jesus’ public ministry, where the topic of Jesus’ messianic mission was for the most part a closely guarded secret. However, the film adds an interesting twist: that Mary and Joseph (fearing for his safety) have not yet told Jesus about his origins. Thus the “Divine Messianic Secret” is depicted as having first been a secret to the Son of God himself. Although he is able to obtain clues along the way, the ending of the film, as in the book, is when Jesus’ mother, Mary, finally sits him down and tells him who he IS. Although strangely this was revealed in the opening of the movie trailers (previews) for the film; but I can’t really cry foul here as it is not exactly like the audience isn’t already in on this.
In conclusion, The Young Messiah is a most impressive, interesting and well-made film. As long as one keeps in mind that it is based on Christian imagination of what our Lord’s childhood MIGHT have been like, and that it is NOT Gospel, I really think they will enjoy it. All that said, for whatever it is worth, I recommend the film to anyone who enjoys biblically themed entertainment.
That is it for this post. Thank you for reading.