For the first time in the history of cinema, a film gives us an imaginative glimpse into the life of Jesus as a child and his relationship with Mary and Joseph.
Inspired by Scripture and rooted in history, The Young Messiah is an inspirational story about the childhood of the Saviour and imagines a year in the boyhood of Jesus.
Remaining true to the character of Jesus revealed in the Bible, it is directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh, who has worked in the motion picture and television business for over 25 years as a writer, producer, and director and gave us the equally inspirational The Stoning of Soraya M, and the screenplay was crafted by Nowrasteh’s wife Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh (who co-wrote The Stoning of Soraya M), adapted from Anne Rice’s fictional account of the childhood of a young Jesus Christ, entitled Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt
There is a rich history of Jesus movies that have dramatized Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion, but none have ever glimpsed into his life as a boy. What kind of child was he? What was his family like? What kind of parents were Joseph and Mary? How could they guide and protect this special child?
Obviously there are great challenges in depicting this because we know very little about Jesus’ childhood. This movie seeks to present a realistic portrait of Jesus rooted in faith. Scripture is the inspiration for the emotions and actions of the boy Jesus as they are envisioned in our story. We do this with respect and reverence in order to imagine a child consistent with Jesus as revealed in the Bible.
Our story takes place during one year in Jesus’ life when he was seven. With the Holy Land in turmoil, young Jesus and his family leave Egypt for their home in Israel. Joseph and Mary are fully aware of the dangers of their world: a corrupt King Herod, civil unrest, and a brutal occupying Roman force. We see a real family face crises and foes large and small with love, fidelity, humor and especially faith.
Knowledgeable viewers will see in our film events and images that foreshadow Jesus’ life as depicted in the Gospels. His compassion and understanding far exceed his years, yet in time he will grow “in wisdom, and in favor with God and man.” (Luke 2:52)
While we hope that our film finds a place alongside other Jesus classics, it’s more important to us that it inspires people to visit, or revisit, the Jesus story from a fresh new angle. As believers, we hope that children will be attracted by another child’s story — Jesus’ story — and that this can be a Passion of the Christ for the entire family. We even hope that, in some small way, our film leads viewers to the transformation and grace that Jesus extends to us all.
— Cyrus Nowrasteh
On Jesus and the Holy Family in Film
Among other religious films, motion pictures about the life of Jesus have played a key role in the history of cinema. Some of the earliest movies recreated the Passion Plays that had graced theatrical stages for centuries, and in each major shift in filmmaking Jesus films have been at the center of those transitions.
Whether they were blockbuster epics like Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961) or smaller films like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), Jesus films throughout history have been, understandably, narrow in their narrative focus. Given the limited biographical information about Jesus in the Bible, these films have depicted what we know the most about: his adult life and ministry. Yet even this comes in broken pieces and diverse stories, nothing near the narrative or chronological consistency that biopics naturally demand.
To make any film about the life of Jesus is to engage in a considerable amount of speculation; we have no factual or visual records of what Jesus looked or sounded like or of what his mannerisms were, all key ingredients for cinematic depictions of famous, historical characters. Perhaps the most frustrating absence is information concerning what Jesus was like as a child, teenager, and young adult, before he began his ministry.
So whenever filmmakers brave the task of committing the Jesus story to film, it helps to consider a couple of questions.
Is the work faithful to Scripture?
Or is it faithful to the spirit of Jesus and the Christ as revealed in that text and as interpreted throughout the Christian tradition?
Few films pass these tests with flying colours, yet many have endured as classics.
Most film adaptations of the life of Jesus are an amalgamation of the Gospel narratives.
A few, like Pasolini’s, focus on one Gospel. In any event, many of the depictions of Jesus are consistent with the humble, wise, loving, compassionate, miracle-working Jesus we read about in Scripture.
For the first time in the history of cinema, a film gives us an imaginative glimpse into the life of Jesus as a child and his relationship with Mary and Joseph.
It is not only an opportunity to reflect on this unexplored time in Jesus’ life, it is also a celebration of the holy family – a testament to the love and fortitude of Mary and Joseph, highlighting just how challenging it would have been to be the earthly parents of the Son of God.
Along with Catherine Hardwicke’s The Nativity Story (2006), The Young Messiah is one of the few Jesus films to give Mary and Joseph such loving, reverential treatment.
From the script phase to post-production, the writers, producers, director, cast and crew – everyone involved with bringing The Young Messiah to the screen – have struck a fine balance between honouring both the text and spirit of Scripture while developing a story that is, largely, absent from it.
Rather than claiming definitively that what we see on-screen is exactly as it was, the film sets the table for a rich conversation about the identity and nature of the child Jesus.
Along with their physical journey from Egypt to Jerusalem, the holy family is also on a spiritual journey to learn what Jesus’ special identity means for him, their family, and humanity. It is a quest fueled by their faith that God has a plan for their special child and that God will reveal these things to them in their proper time.
As a result, The Young Messiah reveals, yet again, the power of film to bring fresh perspectives on a story that we have heard –and seen – countless times.
At the same time, it shows how this ancient and timeless story can inspire us, give us hope, and strengthen our faith in God.
Page to Screenplay
In 2005, Anne Rice wrote a fictional account of the childhood of a young Jesus Christ, entitled Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. It quickly landed near the top of The New York Times bestseller list that year.
“I was a fan of Anne’s books and was interested to see how she’d approach this material, and I loved it,” she says.
The novel excited her so much that she even found herself giving the book to a number of friends, something she says she never does. She didn’t, however, immediately think of the book as a movie. It wasn’t until director and co-screenwriter Cyrus Nowrasteh (Betsy’s husband) received a call from the agent he shared with Anne Rice about the potential project several years later that the film adaptation, The Young Messiah, started taking shape.
It transpired that Rice was already familiar with the Nowrastehs’ previous film, The Stoning of Soraya M., and had written a glowing review on Amazon.com about the movie.
Rice wondered whether the Nowrastehs would be interested in taking a look at her book. Cyrus read the novel quickly and, like his wife, responded immediately to the unique take on the story of Jesus as a young boy and how his family comes to a fuller understanding of his nature and purpose.
“I thought it could make a beautiful film,” he remembers.
A fresh take on the life of Jesus would allow an exploration of what life for the young Jesus might have been like, based on the knowledge of the man that he became.
The story would also give viewers the opportunity to understand Jesus’ full humanity and, as a result, open up opportunities to discuss the life of Jesus and what the Bible does say about him. By portraying him as a young child (something we know very little about) it can highlight the fact that God was made human flesh, and not just as a full grown adult.
Finally, The Young Messiah would give filmgoers the cinematic experience of diving into life in that era, showing what traveling to Jerusalem would be like in Jesus’ time and what life was like under oppressive Roman rule, for example, all of which is grounded in extensive historical research.
Cyrus happened to be working with Christopher Columbus’ 1492 Pictures on another project.
Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh recalls, “He was talking to producer Michael Barnathan, the usual chit-chat, and Cyrus mentioned that this book had been brought up.”
“It instantly lit up as a great idea,” Barnathan says. “It’s the notion that it’s just about a child. We’d see it from the perspective of this boy who over the course of a year comes to understand much more about who he is, why the world around him is the way it is, why people are after him, and why he is special.”
At the heart of The Young Messiah is a relatable tale about the struggle of a family trying to cope with a child who is realizing how very different he is from everyone else.
Barnathan elaborates, “Anne said she chose this time period to write about because in human development at age seven, a human being starts to look inward. It’s the first time a child says, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What am I going to be when I grow up?’ as opposed to ‘I’m hungry’ or ‘I’m cold’. It’s their first look inside, and this happened to coincide with the year the first King Herod died. So she lined up those two things and thought, what an interesting time for this young boy to be looking inward and to wonder who he is.”
With 1492 on board as producers, Betsy and Cyrus got to work on adapting the novel for the screen – a process which didn’t come without challenges. The first was that the book spans a longer period covering several physical journeys for the holy family. The filmmakers believed that the movie version would benefit from being tighter.
“It needed a ticking clock,” Cyrus says. “For it to be a movie, it really needed this drive to a conclusion.”
The film commences seven years after the family has fled to Egypt from their home in Nazareth. “Betsy and I felt that it needed things that Anne alludes to in the story, but doesn’t completely dramatize. What she alludes to in the book is the sense of threat, chaos, danger, and civil war. A young Herod has assumed the throne and he’s worried because everyone’s talking about a Messiah, a boy who’s performing miracles. That’s a threat to his power. We felt that young Herod needed to be a character and should send someone off on a mission to find this boy who’s performing miracles, who may be the Messiah, who may be the child who was missed in Bethlehem seven years ago.”
Rice has gone on record to say that Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt is her favorite book that she’s written, so the Nowrastehs were unsurprisingly nervous to hand over the script draft for her to read.
“We showed her the script and she couldn’t have been more enthusiastic and effusive. It was a huge relief,” Betsy laughs. “For all of the changes we made, she saw that we understood the story. All the themes were intact and all the basic moves were from her material and the characters. We were faithful in all the ways that I think she hoped we’d be faithful to it, knowing that there would be changes. It’s very personal to her – and it is to us, too. We all felt a kinship and there was something very devotional about it in a way. We wanted to respect that.”
On the subject of music, co-screenwriter Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh notes, “We wanted traditional Hebrew songs typical of the period, because in the book there’s a lot of singing. It’s encouraged in the Bible to sing and to be joyful.”
To add this vital layer to The Young Messiah, the filmmakers turned to composer John Debney, an Academy Award nominee for The Passion of the Christ. Cyrus states, “John Debney is so much more than a composer and artist – though that would be enough. He is also a faith-driven man, one who took this story on with all the heart, soul, and belief such a score requires. His music is filled with power and reverence and an immediacy that puts you inside the child Jesus, a place where no other film has gone. The tenderness, the love, the danger, the panorama, the vistas, are all present in the music John has written. Our movie was simply not complete until John had finished the score. For this director, he was the answer to many prayers.”
On figuring out how the music could add to the story, and for which scenes, Cyrus comments, “There’s a journey that the family is on to Jerusalem where it starts to rain and people gather for shelter under trees and ‘lean-tos’ and just do the best they can. Three people are singing to these weary pilgrims who have stopped in the rain. Of course, Jesus and his family are amongst those pilgrims and I thought it could be really sweet to have that moment.”
Cyrus adds, “I want this to be a faith-affirming movie because I have been touched by the experience of working on this. Telling this story and what it has to say and what it’s about are things that I think are very dear to many, many people, not just Christians. Family and faith are universal. Each of us brings something different to it and will take away something different from it. I just hope the audience thinks it’s a beautiful story and that it was worth the experience to go and watch it.”
Walking with The Young Messiah
The Young Messiah presents people of faith – and all viewers – with much to talk about. The film has great value for pastors, who can use it to lead discussions about the nature of Christ. In affirming both Jesus’ full divinity and humanity, viewers become mindful that Jesus had a childhood and an adolescence, and grew into adulthood just as we all do. Seeing Jesus as a child could enable people to be more closely in touch with his humanity, making Jesus that much more relatable through the recognition that he faced the same life situations as we all do as human beings. Given that the focus of the film is on Jesus’ emerging sense of his “higher calling,” it should speak to viewers at all stages of life who wrestle with their own calling and sense of purpose in the world. This will be especially important for adolescents and teenagers, who often feel awkward and out of place when they are in a time of transition. This vision of the child Jesus might also speak to young people as they identify with or engage with social pariahs: the outcasts, the outsiders, and the others.
These reflections on Jesus’ humanity also have theological implications, and, as a result, The Young Messiah raises the age-old theological question about what Jesus knew and when he knew it – in regards to his divinity – in very humble and open ways. When we see the young Jesus praying into the night sky to his Father, are we seeing his true humanity or his true divinity? Or do the two natures interact in that scene? Is the vulnerability of this young boy’s body and faith evocative in any way of his divine nature?
Yet the film is not just about Jesus. Mary, Joseph, and Severus the Centurion play key roles in the story. Mary and Joseph both come to life in The Young Messiah in ways that are rare in most Jesus films. While the performances of Sara Lazzaro as Mary and Vincent Walsh as Joseph allow us to think about these two individuals in new ways, it is their pairing as Jesus’ earthly parents that provides fresh insight into the story. Lazzaro reflects, “It’s an archetype of parents trying to make the best decisions and taking care of children, but there’s not a manual to be a parent.”
Therefore, The Young Messiah provides talking points for parents to engage with each other and with their children. Questions and talking points might include:
- What was it like to parent Jesus?
- What was it like for Joseph to “adopt” a child that wasn’t his, especially in a situation that was potentially very scandalous?
- Jesus was a very special child, so how can this story inspire and speak to parents of children with special needs?
- What kind of gaping hole would have been left in Mary’s life when Jesus died? In what ways can this film speak to parents who have suffered the loss of a child?
Severus the Centurion, though a fictional character – not unprecedented in the history of Jesus movies — is both a narrative lynchpin and the point of entry to the story for most viewers as, through Severus, we hear about and track Jesus through him. Sean Bean, who plays Severus, says that his character is of importance to the story: “He sees Jesus and his family, he’s out and about on the streets and the city all the time, and then he answers to Herod, who sits there on his throne surrounded by concubines and debauchery. Eventually, he has a big change of heart. He decides who he can be loyal to, and that’s Jesus, ultimately. You could say he’s the first convert to Christianity; he epitomizes that.”
Severus’ primary question is one of allegiance to the state, which raises potential questions for us as citizens of the world today:
- At what point does our identity as a citizen of the state conflict with or digress from other impulses that are moving us, especially when those impulses are moving us toward peace and non-violence?
- Given the way the film ends, has Severus reached a turning point in his life and his career? What are the practical implications for someone who is a soldier when they reach a point of internal conflict with their call of duty?
- In what ways is Severus’ “conversion” emblematic of the hope and transformative power that Jesus offers us all?
The character of Severus and the transformation he experiences leads us to one final consequence of this faith-affirming film. In looking at this familiar story from a child’s perspective and thereby offering a good starting point for conversations about Christ and faith, The Young Messiah offers viewers the opportunity to discuss how artistic license is used to create a feature film that can then lead directly to the Scriptures to read what the Bible says about Jesus and the faith that we have in him. As such, it can become a discussion starter for evangelism. Asking the question, “What do you think Jesus would’ve been like as a boy?” is a way to engage anyone in an initial conversation about Christianity.