Directed by: Cyrus Nowrasteh
Premise: An adaptation of the novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt by Anne Rice. The seven year old Jesus and his family return to Nazareth and are pursued by Roman soldiers assigned to kill him.
What Works: The production design of The Young Messiah is generally impressive. The costumes and sets are convincing and the historical period recreated in this film generally has an authentic feel. Period movies go awry if their art direction is too outlandish or too clean, in which case the movie takes on the look of a museum exhibit. The Young Messiah has a plainness about its visual style that suits the scope of this story. As a part of that naturalistic style, the narrative includes an interesting tension among the supporting characters of this film. Jesus and Mary and Joseph travel with Joseph’s brother and his family. Everyone knows the big secret about Jesus except Jesus himself and there is some debate about whether they should tell the boy who and what he is.
What Doesn’t: The first thing to understand about The Young Messiah is that it is based on a novel and not the Bible. The Gospels say very little about Jesus Christ’s childhood and this film is an attempt to speculate and dramatize what might have occurred. Jesus has a lot of potential as a dramatic character and The Young Messiah is an origin story in the same mold as superhero films like X-Men: First Class and Batman Begins. But that potential is never realized and The Young Messiah plays as a movie whose makers had an interesting concept but no idea what to do with it. The most interesting aspect of The Young Messiah is obvious: how does a young boy learn that he is the incarnation of God and how does he cope with that information? The filmmakers fail to do anything interesting with that inherent question and their conception of Jesus is not interesting at all. Despite the otherwise naturalistic style of the movie, The Young Messiah falls into the same mistake of nearly every movie about Jesus. Instead of bringing the audience closer to him, Jesus is kept at a distance. And without anyone else stepping in as a point of view character, The Young Messiah is a story without a coherent protagonist. The young Jesus is played by Adam Greaves-Neal and the young actor does not possess any charisma nor does he give much of an impression of the man he will become. Part of the problem is Greaves-Neal’s casting but the failure of this film weighs most heavily on its uninspired script. The story does not include plot beats for Jesus to grow as a character and when the truth is finally revealed to him there are no dramatic consequences at all. The historical setting of The Young Messiah is chaotic with the Romans occupying African and Middle Eastern lands and using violence and bribery to maintain their foothold. The Young Messiah has a bit of that violence but it doesn’t put anything in context. A really troubling creative choice is the film’s treatment of the young King Herod. His father, who ordered the murder of Jewish infants in an attempt to snuff out the messiah, has died and the son has taken his place. The portrayal of the younger Herod resorts to decadent, anti-Semitic stereotypes. Herod assigns a Roman soldier, played by Sean Bean, to find the young Jesus and kill him. This centurion sets about tracking down Jesus and his family but the subplot relies on a lot of coincides, and its pay off doesn’t make much sense. And that is the overall impression left by The Young Messiah. Nothing much is at stake in this story, the filmmakers don’t create any compelling dramatic tension, and the little they do create is squandered in nonsensical conclusions. This is a film in search of a purpose to exist but it never finds one.
Bottom Line: The Young Messiah has an opportunity to do something interesting with the story of Jesus but this film never accomplishes that. It is long and boring and doesn’t bring anything new to the audience’s understanding of its title character.
Episode: #588 (March 27, 2016)