• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Saturday, May 27, 2017

    The Young Messiah (2016)

    Back in the first few months that I was writing this blog I wrote two pieces about a potential adaptation of Anne Rice's novel "Christ the Lord". I must admit that in the meantime I've never quite been quite interested enough to read the actual book, but it's certainly pleasing to finally sit down to see a film that you've been following for so long. That said the same could have been said about the Star Wars prequels and look how that turned out.

    In some ways the premise is also not so dissimilar. It takes an iconic character we know well due to their adult life and attempts to fill in the gap. Rice had an advantage over George Lucas in that she also had a few fragments of birth stories to work with, but there's a sense in which the audience's investment in the character is both a help (in selling tickets) and a hindrance (in terms of their heightened expectations).

    Young Messiah, then, starts in Egypt several years after Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the rest of their never-fully-defined wider family have fled from Herod. The family seem to have settled well overall but Jesus is beginning to discover some of the things that make him different in ways that don't necessarily help his family to lead a largely anonymous existence. Plus he's being tracked and taunted by a mysterious Brad Pitt look-a-like who appears to be one part devil, one part 80s heavy-metal guitarist. It's hard to know which aspect is more terrifying.

    The devil manages to incite the crowd against Jesus' family such that, as is often still the case for asylum seekers today, even though they have done nothing wrong they still get blamed and in this case feel they have to leave their home again. Plus Nazareth is calling them home (which sounds a little bit like it might have been the title of one of the Pitt-Devil band's biggest hits). Unfortunately just as the family arrive home Herod's son is beginning to inherit his father's paranoia, such that he's sending out soldiers out to try and track down the youngster who so threatened his father. Clearly he wants to tidy up any such loose ends.

    Such plot, then, means that the story necessarily takes place around the quiet byways and backwaters of first century Galilee, Judea and beyond, rather than in amongst the cities and crowds. This means that whilst the film retains many aspects of the Biblical Epic, its size and scope means that overall it lacks the genre's typically "fantastic excess". (Wood 169) That is not to say that it is entirely devoid of spectacle; in one scene Satan appears to Jesus and shows him a burning Jerusalem and later scenes take place in the temple, amongst impressive sets and a mass of extras. And the film also retains many of the other aesthetic characteristics of the genre such as "the typical locations, characters, and sounds" (Grace 13).

    What is particularly interesting about the film however is the way it maps out a new space within the genre's terrain. Traditionally the Old Testament Epic and the Jesus film have been accompanied by a third type of film - the Roman-Christian Epic - epics which visually and thematically fit within the scope of the Biblical Epic, but whose content is only tangentially biblical. The majority of these films, such as Ben-Hur (1925, 1959, 2016), Quo Vadis? (1913, 1924, 1951, 2001) and The Robe (1953) were based not so much on the Bible itself, but on works of fiction in which either minor biblical characters were given a greatly expanded role, or a major biblical character appeared only fleetingly. They also tended to be set in the time around or after Jesus's death.

    Like these Roman-Christian epics Young Messiah occurs around the fringes of the biblical narratives, however the events it depicts occur in an earlier time period between Jesus' birth and his appearance, aged twelve, in Jerusalem. Like them it is also based on a fictional work, Anne Rice's "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt". Like them it also contains a prominent member of the "(e)arthly powers" (Sean Bean's centurion Severus) through whose eyes we witness the events and who eventually comes to faith. (Babington & Evans 202) Yet whilst Severus is Roman, the power figure in this story is not a Roman, but Herod, who describes himself here as "Jewish". And Bean's climatic epiphany is not a conversion to Christianity, but more of a moment of revelation and reflection on his past. Whilst it would clearly count as a moment of divine intervention, it clearly goes even further than the "ecumenical blandness" which Babington & Evans find so typical of the Roman-Christian film. (p.8)

    Essentially, then, this is a fourth type of Biblical Epic, distinct from the Roman-Christian epic by being neither 'Roman' in the fullest sense nor technically 'Christian', (since it had not yet come into existence), even if both undeniably form a critical part of the film's historical backdrop. Furthermore whereas the Roman-Christian Epics relied on a blend of the promise erotic sexual content in the background and romantic love in the foreground here Young Messiah is essentially sexless. Severus is not converted due to his attraction to a Christian woman as in Quo Vadis? but by his encounter with Jesus - something more typical of the Jesus film. And the implication is that the film's leading lady - Mary, Jesus' mother - has remained a virgin even through her married life.

    One key element of the traditional Biblical Epic that is retained is the sense of camp, although the two main camp elements are both more influenced by The Passion of the Christ (Gibson 2004) than the earlier epics. Like Gibson's film Herod is depicted as a camp figure, albeit more subtly than in that film. With his love of soft furnishings, and his court of sycophantic misfits, he flounces barefoot round his throne room treating women with disdain but starring longingly at Sean Bean. In one notable scene he confronts Severus whilst using a female dancer as a proxy for his conflicted feelings about him. Not dissimilarly, the film also depicts Satan as a queer/androgynous figure, though in contrast to Gibson's use of a woman with angular features and a short "masculine" haircut, here Satan is played by a man with long curly blond locks, large dark eyes and soft features.

    Sadly the film's development of the Biblical Epic genre is probably the most interesting thing about it. The holy family's travails from Alexandria to Nazareth to Jerusalem makes little narrative sense yet never really captures the reflection and personal growth aspect of the road movie - a genre it otherwise sits within at least as comfortably as it does the Biblical Epic. Ultimately the plot is driven by Mary and Joseph's unwillingness to tell Jesus the basic facts about his life that apparently everyone else seems to know. A long and dangerous trip takes place simply because the otherwise sympathetic and caring Mary and Joseph can't cope with not being able to give Jesus all the answers. When Mary sits down to tell Jesus about his conception, she starts with the words "Listen well because I'm only going to tell this story once" which will cause most viewers to wonder why an apparently caring mother would refuse to repeat such an important and inspiring story. (I say "most viewers" because those in the UK may be distracted by the presumably unintentional citation from 'Allo 'Allo.)

    Bean's more metaphorical, internal, journey is no more satisfying. Our first encounter with him is as a tough Roman soldier who occasionally spares the life of a child. His ultimate decision not to kill Jesus (I'm assuming anyone reading this already knows that Jesus makes it through to the end of the film) and the revelation he may have acted accordingly in Bethlehem, show that, in fact, he has always been that kind of person.

    It's left, then, to Jesus to bring the film to some sort of vaguely reasonable conclusion and his final voice-over is perhaps the film's most satisfying moment. Trying to work out the reason God has sent him, he concludes "I think I'm here just to be alive. To see it, hear it, feel it, all of it. Even when it hurts. Someday you will tell me why else I'm here. I don't know when, but you will." It's an interesting way to capture some of the critical aspects of the incarnation without getting down into the details. Perhaps this is just "ecumenical blandness" again, but as Mary and Joseph eventually come to realise, sometimes not having a solid answer is OK.

    Babington, Bruce, and Peter William Evans. (1993), Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
    Grace, Pamela. (2009) The Religious Film: Christianity and the Hagiopic, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
    Lindsay, Richard A. (2015), Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day, Santa Barbara, California/Denver, Colorado: Praeger.
    Wood, Michael. ([1975] 1989) America in the Movies, New York: Columbia University Press

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