Movie Review: “The Young Messiah”

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Christian believers can take comfort in the fact that Hollywood hasn’t forgotten how to make old fashioned Biblical epics. Starting with “The Nativity Story” a few years back, and continuing through this year’s surprising “Risen,” studios have been able to attract name actors and top drawer production talent to tell snippets of The Greatest Story Ever Told.

They’re not spending a lot of money on these, but usually that doesn’t show.

In “The Young Messiah” it does.

It’s an “inspired by the Gospels” tale “rooted in history.”  OK, it’s an adaptation of an Anne Rice novel about the formative months in the life of young Jesus Bar Joseph, Jesus of Nazareth.

But a few nice casting touches and a handful of marvelous scenes don’t hide the fact that this Italian production looks little like the Middle East. And the model-pretty Brit-urchin they’ve cast in the title role seems better-suited for a touring company “Oliver!” revival than playing the Son of Man.

The story takes Jesus (Adam Greaves-Neal) and his parents, Joseph (Vincent Walsh) and Mary (Sara Lazzaro) from Egypt, where they fled Herod’s paranoid wrath, back to their homeland. Herod the Great is “Herod the Dead.”

Jesus is seven, but they tell everybody he’s six. Because Herod the Younger, given a sadist/hedonist edge by Jonathan Bailey, is still worried about some child that might have escaped the slaughter of newborns his father ordered in Bethlehem when Jesus was lying in a manger.

The child is beautiful (Does Mary curl his hair?) and kind. And in Alexandria, he is bullied. Satan (Rory Keenan, blond and demonic and quite good) is behind that. But Jesus, who doesn’t know “Who” he is, saves the bully who dies picking on him. The “He can raise the dead” whispers start and make their way to Herod even as the family makes its way back to Galilee. 

Sean Bean brings his usual gravitas to Severus, the crusty Roman Centurion Herod charged with tracking down this miracle worker.

“There’s a Messiah under every tree, every rock.”

A casting coup — putting Christian “Me and Orson Welles” McKay in the role of Cleopas, an avuncular uncle who travels with Joseph, Mary and Jesus. Another nice touch, making his son James (Finn Ireland) the resentful cousin who has hated The Young Messiah since birth.

As the family is pursued through a Holy Land that is wetter and greener than any we’ve seen on the screen before (Italy makes a poor substitute for even the greenest corners of Palestine), James and Cleopas wonder when Joseph and Mary are going to let the kid know who he is.

“How do you explain God to His own Son?”

“The Young Messiah” cannot help but be compared with “Risen,” a minor hit in the same genre still in theaters. They’re both about Romans hunting Jesus and crucifying Jews all along the way.

But “Risen” is more like a thriller, and much more thrilling, and benefits from a better sense of intrigue and a beatific turn by Cliff Curtis as the crucified and risen Jesus, whose body the Romans are trying to track down.

“The Young Messiah” has little urgency to its chase, and bloodless crucifixions on crosses that look like props from community theater Passion Plays.

But it does have a couple of electric moments. Jesus, tested by rabbis who would be his teacher, flummoxes them with his Torah knowledge and seven year old logic. And in confronting the terror (Satan) that only he sees, Jesus faces his first Real test — evil that wants to thwart his destiny.

“I tell you, chaos rules, and I am ITS PRINCE!” the demon growls.

The whole affair feels more promising than presentable, with unruly costumes and a Holy Land where no one sweats and no garment ever seems to get dirty.

The direction, by Cyrus Nowrasteh (“The Stoning of Soroya M.”) lacks urgency or art. The performances are, for the most part, emotionally flat.

Believers may relish hearing “The Lord’s Prayer” chanted as the refugee family makes its way through a gauntlet of crucified criminals, or in catching Sarah (Jane Lapotaire) pepper her speech with quotations from The King James Version.

But discriminating movie-goers will do their due diligence and compare “The Young Messiah” to “Risen,” and wonder why Focus Features didn’t spend a little more money and get it right.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: PG – 13 for some violence and thematic elements

Cast: Adam Greaves-NealSara Lazzaro, Vincent Walsh, Christian McKay, Sean Bean

Running time: 1:51
Credits: Directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh, script by Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, Cyrus Nowrasteh, based on the Anne Rice novel. A Focus Features release.

Believers may relish hearing “The Lord’s Prayer” chanted as the pilgrims make their way home through a gauntlet of crucified criminals, or in hearing Sarah (Jane Lapotaire) pepper her speech with King James Version quotations.

 

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