'Young Messiah' imagines Jesus' early life

While watching “The Young Messiah,” a new film to be released in theaters March 11, set aside your ideas of the Child Jesus calmly whittling wood while St. Joseph constructs a chair in a golden glow.

The plot of the film, based on Anne Rice’s novel “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt,” is about a young Jesus who knows he is different but does not understand the power or the origin of his miraculous abilities. His parents, Mary and Joseph, struggle themselves to share their understanding of who he is.

The story takes the family from Egypt to Nazareth and is built around Jesus and his parents, as well as their extended family as envisioned by the film’s writers. The tension in the film involves an effort by King Herod, whose father ordered the killing of infants in Bethlehem after learning of Christ’s birth, to find and kill Jesus after he learns that the Messiah may still be alive.

It is well-written and movingly acted by mostly unknown actors (with the exception of the Roman centurion played by Sean Bean, who portrayed Ned Stark in the first season of “Game of Thrones”). The child actor Adam Greaves-Neal plays Jesus. Sara Lazzaro and Vincent Walsh portray Mary and Joseph.

Although it bills itself as “an inspirational story for the whole family,” it is rated PG-13, as some scenes are very evocative of evil and others are violent, which some parents might judge to be inappropriate for young children.

Despite the film’s imagined and suspenseful plot line, the story nevertheless remains true to the historical facts of the era as well as to the Bible and to the Catholic Church’s teachings about the nature of Mary and Joseph’s relationship with each other, with Jesus and with God the Father. It has been endorsed by evangelical and Catholic leaders.

According to the film’s promotional material, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston called the film “captivating, inspiring and deeply moving,” and Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said it was “a portrait true to biblical faith but without sentimentality ... an exceptional movie, engaging from start to finish; a film worth seeing and owning and seeing again.”

In an interview with Raymond Arroyo on EWTN’s “The World Over,” director Cyrus Nowrasteh said, “I’ve heard Catholics say it’s a very Catholic interpretation of Mary, and I’ve heard evangelicals and others say ... they love her in this movie, too.” Nowrasteh co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, who first read Anne Rice’s novel and “loved it.”

“The Young Messiah” was shown earlier this month at a screening in San Francisco. Nowrasteh, who filmed the movie in Italy, said the film “celebrates Jesus; it celebrates Joseph and Mary.

“I felt it was an opportunity to go inside the Holy Family in a way you haven’t seen in many movies.”

The making of the movie, from start to finish, took five years and was not free of external drama.

“We had to shut down in preproduction. We had spent $3 million and the movie was dead,” Nowrasteh said. “I started walking the streets in Rome; it was raining. I wondered, ‘maybe I’m not the right person to make this movie. Maybe my faith is not deep enough.’”

“My daughter-in-law said God often chooses those who are unqualified, and I thought, ‘well, he’s got the right guy,’” the director told the audience at the San Francisco screening.

“We hope and pray that people see the movie, that they are affected by the movie, that they come out talking about Jesus,” Nowrasteh said. “We also hope that secular folks that see the movie connect with it. It is a family story.

“We wanted to make a movie that was reverential and respectful,” said Nowrasteh. “And that is up to you to decide.”

Valerie Schmalz writes from California.

A version of this story appears in the March 6, 2016, issue of OSV Newsweekly on page 13.