Moments that had potential
Bible films have experienced a resurgence in the last decade or so, and last weekend The Young Messiah joined the ranks. Based on Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt by bestselling author Anne Rice (which she wrote after her return to Catholicism), the film explores one year in the life of a seven-year-old Jesus as he and his family return from Egypt to Nazareth.
To remember that Jesus grew up—and eventually taught the way of the kingdom—in such a volatile place and time strips away some of the Sunday school storybook sheen and fleshes out the Gospels in a fresh way.
There is little in Scripture about Jesus’ early years, so Rice drew on early Christian writings, history, and apocrypha gospels in crafting her novel. I found it respectful and thought-provoking as it fleshed out what Jesus may have been like as a child, and I was looking forward to seeing what filmmakers could do with the story.
But like all films that adapt a story to the big screen, Bible films can be hit or miss, both in terms of their respect for the source as well as their storytelling. For example, I was frustrated by Ridley Scott’s pick-and-choose approach to his source material in Exodus: Gods and Kings, as well as his uneven storytelling. On the other hand, I loved Darren Aronofsky’s midrash-like approach to Noah, which was a good story that showed respect for the original sources. It fleshed out and got to the truths of a Bible story in a new way, leaving me to ponder and wrestle with what that story tells us about ourselves and God.
There were moments in The Young Messiah that approach this kind of potential. In particular, I appreciated those that touched on the injustice and violence the Jews suffered in that time period.
In The Upside-Down Kingdom, Donald Kraybill points out that the land Jesus lived in was a kind of buffer zone shuttled back and forth between major world powers. The Jewish people lived in an almost constantly occupied territory battered by changing armies and political powers. Like many other people groups who are forcefully occupied, they struggled to maintain their religion and political autonomy even as they were oppressed and sometimes slaughtered.
In Young Messiah, we witness Jesus and his family being harassed by Roman soldiers, finding themselves in the midst of violent skirmishes between Roman soldiers and rebels, and walking down a road lined with crucified men. To remember that Jesus grew up—and eventually taught the way of the kingdom—in such a volatile place and time strips away some of the Sunday school storybook sheen and fleshes out the Gospels in a fresh way.
But those moments feel underdeveloped and lost in a story with characters that are not nearly as compelling as they could be. Mary and Joseph’s greatest flaw seems to be overprotecting their son, and I felt like Herod’s over-the-top insanity bordered on silly rather than tortured. The only characters that seem to exhibit any real complexity are Jesus’ uncle Cleopas (an entertaining Christian McKay) and Sean Bean’s Roman centurion Serverus (who sees far too little screen time).
As a whole, critics are divided on the film, but a few note its contribution to the Bible film genre. Peter Chattaway says the film’s exploration of aspects of Jesus’ story rarely developed in other films makes it a worthy addition to the genre’s cannon. Steven Greydanus goes further, calling the film “an impressive achievement of Christian imagination” that “brings persuasive emotional and psychological depth to characters and situations that were either hidden or else so familiar we may have trouble seeing them at all.”
The Young Messiah does have its moments. I just wish it could have had more of them.
PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements.
All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.