Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 48 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 3.5
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
Anne Rice’s 2005 novel about the childhood of Jesus Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt manages to evoke an almost mystical or magic atmosphere as it recounts the dawning awareness of the boy Jesus that he is special. She has Jesus himself narrate his story, so that we can hear his yearning and confusion as he sorts through the various experiences that set him apart from others. She weaves in legends from The Infancy Gospel of Thomas as well as the familiar story in Luke of Jesus’ visit to the temple. Only later is the story from Matthew of the murder of the infants at Bethlehem fully revealed because part of the plot device is that Mary and Joseph want to protect the child’s mind from the horrible news that his birth triggered the death of so many innocents.
Director/co-writer Cyrus Nowrasteh drops the first person narrative in favor of the omniscient eye of the camera and telescopes the time frame of the book considerably. The theme of the slowly awakening consciousness of the God/Child (well played by Adam Greaves-Neal) gives way to that of the transformation of the hardened Roman soldier Severus (Sean Bean), ordered by King Herod’s son (Jonathan Bailey) to find and kill the pretender to the throne that had escaped his father’s soldiers. (Thus some have paired this film with the Coen’s comedy Hail, Caesar that includes the making of a cheesy movie about a soldier transformed by Christ.) The film might be just as well be named Jesus and Severus.
The film somewhat follows the novel’s plot by beginning in Alexandria, Egypt, where, after seven year-old Jesus is bullied by a bigger boy, the attacker runs away, falls, and strikes his head on the pavement, the blow killing him. Injected into the movie—if the following was in the novel, I missed it entirely—is the person of Satan (Rory Keenan), standing among the onlookers. It is his apple, tossed in the road that trips up the bully, causing him to fall and strike his head. The bystanders tell the dead boy’s family that it was Jesus who killed their boy. Joseph (Vincent Walsh) and Mary (Sara Lazzaro) rush to the scene and enter the house of the dead boy’s family. So does Jesus, who manages to slip over to the body and, while praying, bring the boy back to life. The charge that the adult Jesus will hear from his enemies is uttered here, the family accusing him of being in league with Satan. (We will indeed see this figure several times throughout the film trying to tempt the boy.) As the crowd suggests that Jesus and his family should get out of Alexandria, Joseph announces that this is just what he intends them to do.
He tells his puzzled family that he knows that King Herod is dead so that it is safe for them to return to Nazareth. When asked how he can know such news, he reveals that it was by means of one of his dreams. The whole family sets sail, which includes his brother Cleopas (Christian McKay), much more appealing in the book with his frequent laughing and singing. In this film he seems more like a bumbling fool.
The family’s overland journey includes Jesus innocently interrupting an ambush of Severus and his men by a group of Zealots, providing the violence that in the novel does not come until later when Jesus visits Jerusalem. However, the film does include the marvelous episode at Nazareth where the newly returned family is saved from Roman violence by the kindness of their elderly Aunt Sarah. Woven into the plot also are flashbacks to the Nativity, the visit of the Magi, and eventually, the Massacre of the Innocents, as well as the Infant Gospel legend of Jesus’ giving life back to a dead bird.
Although I did not find the film, with its needless injection of the supernatural Satan, as inspiring as the book, I hope you will not judge it as harshly as some critics have. The one who called the film “boring” is revealing far more about himself than the film. This is not a film I will be using in any Jesus Film class that I teach, but it is still worth the time of believers. Except for the portrayal of Cleopas, the actors are all very good, and I suppose the story of the Roman Severus, though a cliché, is worth putting along those of the soldiers in Quo Vadis?, The Robe and Risen—though Severus’s past involvement with the boy will come as no surprise. The young actor portraying the human Jesus is convincing in his discovery that it is his prayers that are bring about the miracles he desires on behalf of others. No classic, but The Young Messiah is never boring.
This review will be in the April 2016 issue of VP with a set of discussion questions.