Mary, did you know that your baby boy would get a movie about his childhood?
So this is both my review of The Young Messiah and a reflection on an experience I had during the film.
Based on the book “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt” by Anne Rice, The Young Messiah is a historical fiction about a year in the boyhood of Jesus.
While playing with another child, Jesus is bullied by a boy named Eliezer. During this confrontation, Satan kills Eliezer in an attempt to frame Jesus. Minutes later, Jesus uses His gifts to revive Eliezer. In order to protect their Son, Joseph and Mary gather their relatives and the Holy Family journeys out of Egypt and back to Nazareth. All the while, the child Jesus seeks answers about His birth and comes to terms with His coming destiny.
I was very anxious about this film. There is very little written about Jesus’ childhood, so anything that happens in the film would be based on speculation.
During my viewing of this film, I had an experience that shook me to my core. I will talk about it in a bit, but first, let’s see how The Young Messiah holds up.
It is clear that actor Adam Greaves-Neal understood the significance of his role as young Jesus. He brings the right balance of innocence and wisdom to the character. Given the delicate subject matter, I feel that the filmmakers balanced Jesus’ divinity and humanity as well as they could have. Jesus questions His abilities, but when it comes to spiritual matters that no child His age could have a grasp on, Jesus has all the answers. I feel that Adam Greaves-Neal did a pretty good job conveying the internal struggle of being unlike others and the film serves as an admirable character study of one who is both human and divine.
The Holy Family is awesome in this movie. They are righteous and just, but still feel like an authentic family unit. Mary and Joseph argue about how they are to explain Jesus’ true identity to Him, but always agree to trust in God’s timing. I think this might be the best portrayal of Mary and Joseph to date. Kudos to Vincent Walsh, the actor who plays Joseph. He gives us a seasoned and dutiful Joseph who has embraced his mission to protect the two most important people ever. He frequently affirms Mary and wrestles with his own identity as the foster father of the Son of God. Sara Lazzaro is terrific as Mary. Sweet, protective and devout, she brings a nurturing tenderness to the Blessed Mother. It is clear that the actress understands who she is playing, which explains her respectful performance.
This film has one of the most accurate portrayals of Satan since the movie “Black Mass.” He shows up in scenes unannounced and partakes in either staring at Jesus in an unsettling way or whispering deceit into unsuspecting ears, which is very much in-character for the devil. I feel it was a wise choice to have him change into different robes, which serves as a reflection of how the prince of darkness is a master at disguising himself so that mortal eyes never figure out who he is.
Similar to Risen, the film feels very stretched out at times. There are a few scenes that serve next to no purpose other than to fill a 90 minute run time. A few times, I thought to myself, “The point of this scene is…what?” It is obvious that the screenwriter drew a blank on how to progress the plot.
Build-up is a major issue in this film. While not knowing where the plot is going is better than sitting through a bland and predictable story, it can also make the film itself seem aimless and pointless. Investment is lost if the story lacks the sense of building up to something. Even the climax of the film feels a tad rushed.
I kind of understand why the film includes relatives of Jesus, but I feel they were unnecessary. They were just filler characters. The dynamic between Jesus, Mary and Joseph is already interesting enough; we don’t need a made-up Uncle Cleo for comedy relief.
Sean Bean’s character Severus is very underwritten. His conversion story is not developed very well. His conflict with being assigned to find and kill the child Jesus is poorly conveyed. This results in his character feeling like an obligatory villain, an antagonist for the sake of there being an antagonist.
The Young Messiah is a noble effort to understand the psychology of Jesus. Personally, I think that Risen is better than The Young Messiah, but that doesn’t mean The Young Messiah is a bad movie. Much thought went into the humanistic portrayal of the Holy Family and that is worth commending. While the actual plot is lacking and could have used a lot more polishing, the sincerity on the part of everyone involved make the Young Messiah a flawed but intriguing addition to the Christian film genre.
In my book review of The Screwtape Letters, I mentioned that I’ve been dealing with spiritual attacks. This past week has been particularly challenging. Let me put it this way: Imagine a party guest who shows up even though nobody wanted to invite them and this person spends the entire evening criticizing the food you’ve prepared and the decorations you chose and just mocks your every move. The devil has been that guy to me all week.
Two days ago, my mother told me that a friend of hers had seen the film and said that the movie begins with Satan killing a child and making it look like Jesus is the culprit. Immediately my heart dropped to my stomach, so my mother prayed over me last night.
Fast-forward to my viewing of the film: The movie starts and we first see young Jesus. Everything is fine and good…until the film cuts to a blond-haired man in black robes. I scratched my head, “Why is there a blonde dude in Egy–oh, no, it’s him.” As I said, the film never calls his character “Satan”, but in my heart, I knew exactly who the character was supposed to be.
There is one sequence in particular where Jesus gets a fever and is confronted by Satan. The camera is shot from Jesus’ perspective, so Satan is staring down at Him (and at we, the audience). I wanted to look away, but I forced myself to be brave and keep my eyes on the screen. Satan taunts Jesus, pressing Him about His identity. When Jesus remains strong, Satan shows Him a vision of Jerusalem on fire. Moved to tears, Jesus kneels and begins to pray. Satan moves closer to Jesus and begins hissing in His ear.
Fear gripped me. I couldn’t stop my body from shaking. I zipped up my jacket to keep in the warmth, but my body continued to tremble. The scene ends with Satan telling Jesus, “Chaos reigns…and I am THE PRINCE OF IT!”
I began to cry. I could feel the darkness infused with those words. A sinking sense of loneliness enveloped me. For the first time in my life, I actually thought to myself, “What if there is no God?” The minute this thought crossed my mind, despair overwhelmed me.
A sinister laughter echoed in my ears. I turned around and saw that the laughing didn’t come from the three other people in the theater, who all sat silently.
At that moment, I suddenly felt the presence of Saint Gemma Galgani, who knows all too well about the extent of the devil’s cruelty. A warmth wrapped around my body, as if she was embracing me. I took a deep breath and turned my focus back to the film.
The film ends with Mary explaining to Jesus His origins. When she tells the story of Archangel Gabriel appearing to her, she says, “My room filled with light and it spoke to me, it said, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you…'” I whispered the Hail Mary as she spoke and as I prayed, the feeling of crippling loneliness disappeared. In its place was a sense of peace, the feeling that God is with me, especially when I feel alone.
Where there is sin and darkness, there is light. Jesus is that saving light.
Holy Family, pray for us.