A Movie for Lent
I hope you haven’t given up watching movies this Lent, because we’ve been privileged to have some really good movies come out during this Year of Mercy, specifically during Lent! February 19th saw the release of Risen, the story of Jesus’ Resurrection told from the perspective of a non-believer. On March 16th, another film that I have not yet seen—Miracles from Heaven—will release just in time for Easter. And this week—on Friday, March 11th—The Young Messiah will release in theaters. Based on the fictional novel about the childhood of Jesus by Anne Rice, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, this movie is an imaginative portrayal of the time when the Holy Family returned from Egypt to Nazareth.
The Young Messiah is a beautiful, well-done production of high quality that is enjoyable, fully engaging, and not preachy. It is made for a general audience—it doesn’t presume that the audience s made up of people of faith. So many detailed and excellent reviews have been done about the film (including Sr. Anne Joan Flanagan’s excellent review here, as well as Christianity Today’s interview with director Cyrus Nowrasteh), that I decided to simply talk about how the film could be a source of prayer.
Imagining the Life of the Christ Child
The Young Messiah is the imaginative portrayal of what it might have been like for the Holy Family as they returned from Egypt to Nazareth. The film is based on Anne Rice’s book, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh, with the script written by Cyrus and Betsy Nowrasteh. Both reverent and entertaining, the film is based on research of the lives of first-century Jews, and has a Catholic sensibility in its approach.
The strength of the film is twofold: the relationships between Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and their extended family; and an exploration of the mystery of the Incarnation in the childhood of Jesus. In particular, the film explores how much the Child Jesus knew and understood his unique identity as the Son of God and Messiah. The very real dilemma of Mary and Joseph of how to raise the Son of God—how to keep him safe, how much to tell him, is portrayed with depth and realism.
Both novel and film had to approach this time in the life of Jesus imaginatively, since the only Scripture we have from this time reports that the Holy Family returned from Egypt and settled in Nazareth (see Matthew 2:21-23). So the events are imagined, although they often foreshadow future events that are in the Gospels, such as the Baptism of Jesus, miraculous healings, the losing and finding of Jesus in the temple, Jesus’ temptations in the desert, the Crucifixion, etc. Although never quoted, for me the theme of the film is the line from Luke’s Gospel: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (2:52).
All of these elements, along with the high quality of acting, direction, and cinematography, make The Young Messiah not just a strong film, but a powerful source for reflection and prayer.
Lights and Shadows in the Film
Set in an atmosphere of oppression, much of the film is made up of a series of threatening encounters with the Roman soldiers (one of whom has been assigned to find and kill the young healer whose actions have been noticed). The film includes some beautiful and moving family scenes, especially a very touching scene between Mary and Joseph, but the overall threat to Jesus overshadows the film too much. In addition, although Mary must have been worried about Jesus, her portrayal here doesn’t reveal her faith. The Mary in this film is not the strong woman of faith in the Gospel who repeatedly gave an unequivocal “yes” to God.
As with any movie, before taking younger children, a parent should see the film first. Although the story takes place when Jesus is a child, The Young Messiah is not a children’s movie. Sensitive children may be disturbed by the depiction of Satan, Herod, or some of the violence in the film (such as the crucifixions, slaughter of the Holy Innocents, and one of the fights). Focusing on the highlighted conflict between the Jewish people and the Roman soldiers with multiple encounters that are laced with threat casts a negative pall over the life of the Child Jesus that may not be helpful for a child. (The PG-13 rating might be a helpful guide in this case.) But for teens and up, The Young Messiah is definitely a movie that can enrich your Lent, especially if you enjoy or would like to explore praying with your imagination.
Believers may want to consider seeing this film on opening weekend to support the film. The film’s foreshadowing of future events in the life of Christ makes its release date—just two weeks before Holy Week—a timely lead-in to Holy Week.
Scriptural Cinema Novena with The Young Messiah
Whether or not you see the film, you may wish to participate in our Cinema Novena: The Young Messiah, which is a nine-day novena that uses some of the best moments of the film for our reflection in the light of Scripture. You can make this novena to the Holy Family, or to St. Joseph. If you start on March 11th, you will finish the novena on March 19th, the feast of St. Joseph.
FREE! CINEMA NOVENA: THE YOUNG MESSIAH
Nine unique days of prayer, supported by powerful, living depictions of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
Sign up today to Play, Ponder and Pray:
1. a daily film clip from The Young Messiah
2. a guiding passage from the Bible with a brief, life-oriented reflection question, and
3. a prayer