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Family Movie Review: The Young Messiah (PG-13)

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MPAA Rating: PG-13        Length: 112 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 13+. Lots of Biblical-times violence here, including hand-to-hand combat and sword-fighting, an attempted rape, a stabbing, crucified bodies on crosses, flashbacks to the slaughter of male children and babies in Bethlehem, blood splatter, and a scary dog; the presence of the Devil, who tries to corrupt Jesus and turn others against him; a bully beating a smaller child; some sexual content, including a scantily clad belly dancer and some groping; some derogatory language toward women and a joke about pedophilia; and adults drinking wine.

‘The Young Messiah’ takes a different approach by focusing on a specific point in Jesus’s childhood. But the faith-based film drags, and is mostly unremarkable.

By Roxana Hadadi

If you took last month’s “Risen,” about a Roman soldier’s search for Jesus’s disappeared body after his entombment, and shrank down the story for a younger audience, you would have the Easter-cinema offering “The Young Messiah.” So much of this movie mimics that former one, but without any of the old-Hollywood-epic feel or even slightly nuanced depiction of Christianity. “The Young Messiah” is almost instantly forgettable.

What “The Young Messiah” hammers home is, unfortunately, the shortcuts that films set in ancient times, whether faith-focused or not, often make. White actors are cast in all the “good” roles, whereas darker, more-ethnic-looking actors are Jesus’s attackers and skeptics. Everyone has British accents, like they did in the fantastically horrible fantasy film “Gods of Egypt.” And there’s a certain glee in the barbarity of those times, with soldiers seen butchering babies, a child smashing his head on a rock, and the attempted rape of a woman.

The film is trying to make a particular point—that the world was a brutal, awful place before Christianity—but it does so obviously. “The Young Messiah” may be about Jesus’s childhood, but it’s less about his quest for meaning than about how terrible the world was before him. It’s a message of fear, and it’s not subtle.

“Inspired by Scripture and rooted in history, this story imagines a year in the boyhood of Jesus,” writes an intertitle card at the beginning of “The Young Messiah,” which starts in Egypt. Seven-year-old Jesus (Adam Greaves-Neal) is friendless and bullied by his (clearly Arab) peers; there is tension between the Egyptians and the Jews who fled to the country seven years ago, when Rome’s King Herod commanded the slaughter of all Jewish boys in Bethlehem. King Herod was trying to kill Jesus, rumored to be the messiah who would topple the Roman Empire, but the boy doesn’t know that, and the family fled to Egypt in secret.

In Alexandria, Jesus is raised by his mother Mary (Sara Lazzaro) and father Joseph (Vincent Walsh), who forbid him from asking too many questions and who worry that Jesus’s healing powers will attract unwanted attention. But as they journey back to Nazareth once they learn of Herod’s death, there is much they either don’t know or don’t understand.

They have no idea that Herod’s insane son (Jonathan Bailey, of “Testament of Youth”) has tasked a soldier, Severus (Sean Bean, of “The Martian”), with killing the Jewish boy who is rumored to work miracles. They don’t understand that the creepy blond man Jesus sees is the Devil (Rory Keenan), encouraging others to think the boy is a demon. And they don’t realize the depths of Jesus’s curiosity about his true identity, and underestimate the lengths to which he will go to find answers.

Most disappointing about “The Young Messiah” is that while the film’s focus is on Jesus’s childhood, it doesn’t tell you anything about him that is particularly insightful or even surprising. He’s presented as an innocent, loving boy who ends up strong and self-assured (“Father, I am your child” are the film’s final words), but that is a simple narrative that drags on for about a half-hour longer than necessary. A surprising amount of time is spent with Severus, who is presented as having post-traumatic stress disorder from the Bethlehem massacre, but those flashbacks feel like an excuse for more violence instead of character development. Is Severus genuinely moved by Jesus, or just irritated by Herod’s lecherousness? It’s unclear, and his role suffers for it.

Aside from all that, there’s also the film’s subtle racism, like how the only acknowledgment of Middle-Eastern culture is when the Devil is walking down an alley and Arabic music plays during his nefarious stroll, and the sidelining of Mary, who only has one significant interaction with her son at the film’s end. There is a better version of “The Young Messiah” already in theaters, and that’s “Risen.” That film should be your Easter movie choice instead of this one.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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