It’s difficult to review a Christian film without offering a caveat. I think all serious film critics who profess Christianity struggle with this. Christians are passionate about faith-based movies and Hollywood has taken notice. This is why we are seeing a slew of religious films being released (Woodlawn, Risen, Miracles From Heaven, etc.). Christian audiences either fully embrace a movie and rally around it, even if it is not that great (War Room), or hate it and voice their outrage in public, sometimes without even seeing the movie (Noah). Christians have a love-hate relationship with films of faith and rarely does a movie fall somewhere in the middle.
Here is my caveat and this especially applies to The Young Messiah. Christians who believe in the inerrant word of God should not expect the same thing from films based on the Bible. Why? These are two different mediums. Film is not print and print is not film. When you go from one medium to another, interpretations will have to be made. For example, how did a person make this statement? What was their tone? What did this person or scene look like? There are certain details not given in print that are essential to film. One also needs to keep in mind that a story which is only a few chapters long will require additional scenes and dialogue to produce a feature length presentation. So, how should Christians evaluate religious movies? There are two important questions one can ask.
Is it faithful? – Although it may contain additional scenes and dialogue, does it remain loyal to the spirit of the word of God? Even though interpretations are necessary, does it accurately represent the Christian faith?
Is it good? – Is the movie well-made? Is it true, good, and beautiful? Is it something you would want to share with others?
The Young Messiah excels in both of these categories. It is an intriguing story about a seven-year-old Jesus who has many questions about things that are happening in his life. It is also a film that is mostly made up but faithful to the meaning and intent of Scripture. The filmmakers are well aware they are exploring a time in Jesus’ life that is barely mentioned in the Bible. The film opens with a statement concerning the intent and purpose of the movie.
“Inspired by Scripture and rooted in history, this story imagines a year in the boyhood of Jesus.”
Young Jesus can perform miracles, but he doesn’t understand the how and why of it. This ability brings unwanted attention to him and his family. They must leave Egypt and return to Nazareth where Herod’s son is still in search of the Messiah, who was born in Bethlehem. Herod enlists the help of Roman soldiers to find this Messiah and kill him.
Dating back to the 2nd century, Christians have been interested in the adolescence of Jesus. Stories like the ones found in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas are sometimes comical and obviously made up. The Young Messiah takes the subject of Jesus’ youth and treats it quite seriously. Although Christians who are familiar with Scripture will readily recognize that much of the film is extra-Biblical, they should not have a hard time imagining these events could have taken place.
The Young Messiah succeeds because it gets a lot of things that are difficult to portray on the big screen right. Its portrayal of evil and Satan are believable and not corny in any way. Complaints about how Jesus is portrayed in films are abundant. He’s too good looking. He doesn’t speak enough. He’s not the right ethnicity, and on and on it goes. In this film, Jesus’ humanity and divinity equally shine forth, something that few films get right. Jesus is more believable because most people are used to picturing him as an adult rather than a child.
There are several similarities between The Young Messiah and Risen, another Jesus film released just a few weeks ago. Both attempt to tell the story of Jesus through a fictional story. Both use characters in the story to answer questions concerning Jesus’ identity. Both are good movies, but The Young Messiah exceeds in areas where Risen does not. This is partly because The Young Messiah contains the element of surprise. Risen is a fictional story with no surprises. It is evident what is going to take place before the film begins. The Young Messiah uses its fictional story to its benefit. The outcomes are not apparent. The viewers are allowed to explore issues of faith and doubt as they unfold.
The Young Messiah is a movie with depth. It is one that a person of faith could easily return to again and again. It is also a film that raises questions for the unbeliever. Who was Jesus and why did so many people believe in him? There is a complexity to this film that one cannot easily dismiss like the shallow faith presented in many religious-based movies. It is an honest portrayal of a person who changed this world forever.