Because in this franchise-saturated age, even the New Testament apparently requires a prequel — aside, of course, from the Old Testament — “The Young Messiah” envisages a year in the life of Christ circa age 7. Based on Anne Rice’s 2005 novel, “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt,” and claiming inspiration from Scripture, this pious drama is a work of minimal imagination and even less subtlety. Its hollow tale is merely a series of inert incidents in which the childhood deity (Adam Greaves-Neal) heals, resurrects, and provides revelation on his way from Alexandria to Nazareth (and later Jerusalem) alongside his parents Mary (Sara Lazzaro) and Joseph (Vincent Walsh), all while being pursued by a would-be Roman assassin. A borderline-diabolical test of one’s patience, this sluggish saga will likely stir the spirits of only the staunchest Sunday-school set.
“How do we explain God to his own son?” asks Joseph to Mary during an early crisis — a somewhat baffling question considering that, as imagined by Cyrus Nowrasteh’s film, Jesus is quite aware of, and engaged in regular conversation with, the Almighty. Jesus’ parents want to keep their son in the dark about his holy parentage because they think ignorance will protect him from those who’d otherwise cause him harm, though their decision primarily reeks of screenwriting contrivance. By having its protagonist remain clueless about the reasons he’s able to magically cure the sick and bring the dead back to life, “The Young Messiah” offers itself a way to pad its incident-light narrative via redundant scenes of Joseph, Mary and rambunctious Uncle Cleopas (Christian McKay) debating the practicality of cluing the kid in to his divinity.
After Jesus is wrongly blamed for a bully’s death and then revives him — events that compel others to slander him as an agent of Satan — Joseph opts to heed his latest dream and relocate the family back to Nazareth. That journey constitutes the bulk of the action, yet almost nothing of consequence actually occurs along the way, save for a run-in with a fugitive slave, a narrow escape from some centurions tasked with killing the region’s rebellious Jews, and much praying for guidance and strength. Such turgid proceedings are routinely intercut with the mission of soldier Severus (Sean Bean) to track down and kill the rumored-to-be-messianic child on the orders of King Herod (Jonathan Bailey). It’s a task with which Severus seems only partially comfortable, but which he accepts lest he incur the wrath of his ruler, here portrayed as a curly-haired pansexual male model plagued by visions of invisible serpents.
Compounding Jesus’ plight are regular encounters with an apple-chomping demon (Rory Keenan) whose long blond locks and brown goatee suggest that the devil’s preferred form is 1990s-era Brad Pitt. Trying in vain to terrify and tempt Jesus, this sinister figure is the most flamboyant of the film’s many embellishments, which also include panoramas of silhouettes traveling across hillsides; shots of the “boy angel” that segue from God’s-eye aerial perspectives to worshipful ground-level views; and endless closeups of intense eyes and faces bathed in beatific sunlight. As in his prior, equally ham-fisted “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” director Nowrasteh employs as many over-the-top visual gestures as he can muster, all of them drenched in sweeping orchestral music and soaring crooning. The result is that, in terms of its tunics-and-beards-and-braided-hair style and from-on-high soundtrack, the film feels like a cross between a biblical “Game of Thrones” and an Enya music video.
From Joseph’s furrowed-brow concern and Mary’s wide-eyed fearfulness to Severus’ apprehensive determination, the characters are a one-note bunch. Greaves-Neal’s sacred adolescent, meanwhile, proves to be such an innocent, open-faced blank that the film never generates even a hint of authentic spirituality. The story’s preordained destination negates any sense of suspense, but it’s Jesus’ uncomplicated goodness — as well as sequences that aim to foreshadow his ultimate fate, such as a trek past some crucified men — that render the action a pointless before-He-was-martyred exercise.
By the time its characters have reached the Jerusalem temple where Jesus is destined to triumphantly face off against Severus, “The Young Messiah” has delivered so little in the way of urgent or meditative drama that its climactic attempts at uplift fall flat. A final, somewhat uncertain note, however, suggests that the filmmakers may be saving a more introspective examination of Christ’s nature for a forthcoming “Jesus: The Teen Years” sequel.