If you are a person of faith, perhaps you have joined me in wondering to yourself "What was Jesus like as a small boy? Did he have fun? Did he play? Did he understand his gifts? Did he know his future? What was his relationship to those around him?"
I have, in fact, pondered these very things often along my faith journey.
So, I practically squealed with delight when I heard about The Young Messiah, the latest film from Cyrus Nowrasteh (The Stoning of Soraya M.) that follows the life of Jesus for one year when he was seven-years-old. Adapted from and inspired by Anne Rice's 2005 novel "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt," a fictional account of the childhood of a young Jesus, The Young Messiah follows Jesus and his family as they travel from Egypt to Nazareth and on to Jerusalem.
The film, produced by 1492 Pictures, which includes such familiar names as Chris Columbus, Michael Barnathan, and Mark Radcliffe, opens on March 11th from Focus Features in time for the Easter and, despite its PG-13 rating, is a terrific film for the entire family with the possible exception of pre-teens that may find a couple of the film's more intense elements a bit jarring.
Of course, it is true that very little is actually known about the childhood of Jesus yet the co-writing husband-and-wife team of director Cyrus Nowrasteh and Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh has done an admirable job of adapting Rice's novel, tightening it yet remaining faithful to its spirit and thematic elements, and creating a story that feels authentic in foreshadowing the life that is to come for Jesus.
The Young Messiah begins in Egypt with a young Jesus showing signs of living into a life far more transcendent than the small boy he seems to be. Despite attracting conflict, Jesus, played with eloquence and discipline by Adam Greaves-Neal (All at Sea), is becoming more and more curious about his apparently divinely inspired gifts and knowledge yet his parents, Joseph (Vincent Walsh, 300: Rise of an Empire) and Mary (Sara Lazzaro, television's The Young Pope), remain protective of their young son and unsure of just how much to share with him.
After all, how do you help the Savior who came to save you?
This, for me, is the brilliance and wonder of The Young Messiah, a film that remains faithful to the reverent tone of a biblical tale yet also a film that humanizes, quite beautifully, the lives of those involved in the story including the young child of Jesus. The questions proposed in The Young Messiah are ones that will likely feel familiar to children and adults alike. This story and this Jesus are accessible in a way that we seldom seem captured with any conviction on the big screen.
The Young Messiah received the coveted Dove Seal as a "Faith Friendly" film for ages 12 and over. Indeed, that feels just about perfect for a film that doesn't shy away, especially in a couple more intense scenes, from the world in which Jesus lived. The film's ensemble cast is strong across the board. As noted, Greaves-Neal gives a disciplined performance informed with intelligence and sensitivity, while Sara Lazzaro gives a warm, transparent performance as Mary. Vincent Walsh's Joseph goes far beyond what we usually see in such stories where he's often relegated to a secondary character. Here, Joseph is a man of strength and conviction and accessible paternal instincts. Sean Bean, one of the few actors in the film to be a fairly well known household name, is excellent as Severus, a Roman Centurion who recognizes something special in Jesus and doesn't know what to do with it. As an old rabbi, David Bradley will likely make you flash back at least momentarily to some of those "other" 1492 films like the Harry Potter flicks or even the Percy Jackson films. Rory Keenan also shines as a demon who begins challenging Jesus's life even at a young age.
Despite being a studio release and being produced by one of Hollywood's major production companies, The Young Messiah remains faithful to its faith-based roots and its telling, in this case, of what may very well be the greatest story never told. With honesty and simplicity, Nowrasteh crafts a film that satisfies intellectually yet resonates emotionally. Wherever you are on the theological spectrum, The Young Messiah is a film that will leave you contemplating its lessons and contemplating on a more human and emotional level than ever the life of Jesus.
For those of us who identify as Christians, myself included, we often talk about how faith is ultimately about having a personal relationship with Jesus. The Young Messiah opens that door widely by telling a story that is both intimate and universal. It gives us a Jesus we can identify with and plants just enough foreshadowing that we can never forget the fullness of his physical journey and the sacrifices made.
With innocence and wonder, The Young Messiah will warm your heart and, in all likelihood, bring you to your knees.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic