[Today’s the final day of my Pre-Christmas Marathon, and for my final review, I chose a religious film as a reminder of my faith at Christmas. A very Merry Christmas to all!]
When Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem,
What did He know in His heart?
Was he a child, a blank slate like all of them,
Or was He wise from the start?
How would it be for His mother and Joseph
To know that their Son was the Lord?
Would His divinity capture much notice,
Or would it be veiled and ignored?
What questions and theories must Mary have pondered
While holding her Lord in His youth!
For centuries since, the same matters we’ve wondered,
And still only God knows the truth.
MPAA rating: PG-13
It’s no secret that faith-based films usually play to a niche market of believers, yet even as a Christian myself, I still must admit that few of them transcend the usual preaching-to-the-choir lessons that are reassuring but rarely challenging. Bible-based stories are particularly predictable since I and most viewers know these stories like the back of our hands and have probably seen multiple versions of the same tales. I don’t mean to dis Biblical films because I think more quality adaptations should be made, as they were back in Hollywood’s Golden Age, but The Young Messiah stands separate of most of its cousins because it focuses on Jesus’ childhood, a time that is barely mentioned in the Bible.
Based on Anne Rice’s novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, the film follows Jesus (curly-haired Adam Greaves-Neal) as a seven-year-old as His family leaves Egypt to return to Nazareth and visit Jerusalem. A key question that apologists have surely debated for centuries is that, if Jesus was God, when did He know? Did He shift from a naïve child to a Messiah knowledgeable of God’s will when He reached a certain age? The Young Messiah posits such questions earnestly as Jesus himself wonders what is so special about Him, and Mary (Sara Lazzaro) and Joseph (Vincent Walsh) debate whether they should reveal the miraculous story of His birth or wait. As Joseph tells his adopted son, “your questions are the questions of a child, but the answers are the answers for a man.” Such discussion could have been boring (and perhaps to uninvolved viewers, it is), but it’s treated as an important question for a warm and close-knit family. Said family is also kept personable by the jovial presence of Jesus’ uncle Cleopas (Christian McKay) and the relationships of Jesus and his cousins, one of whom admits he is jealous of Jesus’ specialness.
None of this is in the Bible, a fact that has derailed many a speculative story in the past. It didn’t actually happen this way, but it could have. My VC refused to watch The Young Messiah because of its non-Biblical basis, but unlike revisionist accounts that question the roots of faith, The Young Messiah approaches its material with a key belief as part of its foundation: Jesus is God. In all its discussions of what that meant for a young Jesus, it never questions that tenet of Christianity and ultimately affirms it. I don’t consider it wrong that the filmmakers have turned a debate over Jesus’ early days into a feature film because the respect they feel toward the subject is obvious and its connections to actual Bible events anything but sacrilege. Certain aspects are even kept greatly conservative, such as making Jesus’ “brother” James his cousin, a detail held more closely by Catholics than Protestants.
A good example of the film’s taking a credible idea and running with it is depicting Herod’s son Antipas as a paranoid weirdo who has inherited his father’s fear of being overthrown by the promised Messiah. Since that fear made his father murder the infants of Bethlehem, Antipas continues the thirst for blood by hiring a Roman centurion (Sean Bean) to hunt Him down. Since we know the Biblical account, we know what will not happen, but the film’s narrative remains interesting and sometimes tense because, unlike most Biblical films, we don’t know exactly how its embellishments will play out. Likewise, another threat is kept present as Jesus is shadowed by a demon (Rory Keenan) who whispers into others’ ears of who Jesus might be; it makes sense that Satan knew about the young Jesus, but any involvement he might have had before their confrontation in the desert must be left to the realms of speculation.
It helps too that The Young Messiah is of a respectable quality, fitting in nicely with other Biblical films of artistic merit, such as The Nativity Story and The Passion of the Christ. The cinematography is consistently handsome, especially as Jesus’ family journeys across the Judean countryside. There is a bit of an overreliance on slow-motion when certain scenes are meant to have spiritual significance, and perhaps letting the profound moments speak for themselves could have made them stronger.
Yet The Young Messiah does what few faith-based films do in depicting a story that’s never been told while keeping its basis in the Gospels. Even in Jesus’ final monologue, the simple fictional lines hold an insightful truth: beyond coming to die, Jesus became man to live, both as a child and as an adult, so He could relate to His creations in all things but sin. The Young Messiah may appeal mainly to Christian audiences, but it has more food for thought than most Christian films try to deliver.
Best line: (Joseph) “I know you have many questions, but you need to let them sleep in your heart for now. Why? Because your questions are the questions of a child, but the answers are the answers for a man. That is one bridge I cannot build. I don’t know how. But God can, and we must trust Him.”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2016 S.G. Liput
437 Followers and Counting