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Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Young Messiah

This Jew's take on the apparently almost entirely made up story of a very, very young Jesus Christ! What could go wrong?

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

As he and his family return to Judea/ Israel after years in exile in Egypt, Jesus Bar Joseph, aged seven, has to come to terms with his strange powers and the even stranger circumstances surrounding his birth.

What we thought

As a reasonably observant Jew, I am, most decidedly, not the target audience of the Young Messiah. And yet, that doesn't necessarily mean that the film didn't have a chance in hell of working for me. For a start, though I don't believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah or the so-called Son of God, I do find the whole story of Jesus to be pretty damn good mythology. I don't care much for it religiously, in other words, but as a fan of great stories, it's certainly one of the better ones. And historically, it's really interesting too. Further, you may not have noticed, but Jesus was Jewish himself and the whole background in which his story takes place is the end of the Second Temple period, undoubtedly one of the most intriguing and often contradictory periods in Jewish history.

I say all this not just to establish my credentials but to make it abundantly clear that, though I think the Young Messiah is a pretty lousy movie, it's not because I have a problem with it religiously. Or, if I do have a problem with it religiously, it's that it failed to actually explore that side of the story in any real detail at all, to the point that I think even its actual target audience of fairly young Christians will leave the film decidedly un-uplifted. Frankly, they'll probably find more religion in the Man of Steel – not that I recommend that particular train wreck either!

But then, perhaps that's what happens when you base the story of Jesus on a novel by Anne Rice (she who is most famous for a series of vampire novels and writing, under a pseudonym, erotic fantasy novels, but who is actually quite Christian), rather than any real religious text, let alone the New Testament itself. Compare this safe, plodding and insufferably boring “origin story”, to Darren Aranofsky's brilliantly demented Noah, which mined all of its Biblical story's mythology from Midrashic texts and various other, (mostly Jewish) apocrypha, rather than what comes across as a particularly lame YA novel.

Regardless of how good or bad the novel is, though, the film itself represents the very worst in religious art. While religion, and Christianity in particular, has inspired some truly breathtaking masterpieces, in everything from the Sistine Chapel to the works of JS Bach to ET: The Extra Terrestrial, it can also inspire the blandest, most uninspired, most conservative work imaginable. And, boy, is this a case in point.

There's a sense here that since Jesus is in the film, neither director Cyrus Nowrasteh and writer Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh felt they needed to do too much to actually “save” it from bad, bad filmmaking. It's incredibly slowly paced, has laughably creaky dialogue, bland cinematography and some of the woodiest acting since the Star Wars prequels. Worst of all, though, is that the story it's trying to tell just isn't very interesting. It may tackle a period in Jesus Christ's life that hasn't, to the best of my knowledge, been dealt with in the past but it tells us absolutely nothing new about Jesus as a person or religious figure that we didn't know before – and I say this as a total Jesus neophyte!

Even the background details aren't all that interesting, which is all the more criminal considering how fascinating that period in history – Jewish or otherwise – so obviously was. While Israel was ruled by the mad, evil king Herod (a Roman pawn) and wracked by conflict between both various Jewish factions and between the Jews and their Roman oppressors, the mighty Roman Empire was entering its final century before Christianity, as interpreted by Paul, converted it into something else entirely. It's genuinely fascinating stuff that is barely even hinted at here.

And, while we're on the subject, isn't calling the film's hero Jesus bar Joseph basically mixing up Jesus' Latin first name (Jesus) with the then-typical melding of Aramaic (bar) and - in this case, anglicized - Hebrew (Joseph) of his last name? I may be wrong, and it's no real biggie anyway, but it seemed a bit strange and more than a bit typical of the film's lack of attention to detail. And it also says a lot about just how uninterested I was in everything else going on that this, of all things, would be such a sticking point for me.

Good news, though, if you're looking for something particularly Christian for the upcoming Easter weekend (by which time this may be off circuit), you at least have Risen - which is actually not half bad, if very much flawed - to look forward to. Otherwise, as it's impossible not to come back to whenever the Messiah is mentioned, there's always Monty Python's Life of Brian...

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