Faith-based movies may be all the rage now, but in recent years they unfortunately have been divided into two distinct, unsatisfying camps. On the one hand are big-budget Hollywood epics like Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings, made by non-believing filmmakers whose subversive treatment of the Biblical source material has turned off Christian audiences. On the other are low-budget independent efforts by believing filmmakers whose genuine reverence for the Biblical material has been undermined by heavy-handed preachiness and cringe-worthy acting. But two affecting new historical Christian films are bridging that gap and elevating the genre to higher ground.
WARNING: MILD SPOILERS AHEAD
Risen, written and directed by Kevin Reynolds of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and The Count of Monte Cristo fame (as well as Waterworld infamy), premiered last month. It is the story of a first-century, war-weary, Roman military tribune named Clavius, masterfully underplayed by Joseph Fiennes, who seeks a respite from slaughter—a “day without death.” He is charged with investigating the disappearance of Jesus’ body from the tomb after his crucifixion. Pontius Pilate and the local religious leadership pressure Clavius to help them suppress the troublesome new Christian cultists for political reasons by accusing them of staging a fake resurrection of their Messiah.
But Clavius gradually comes to the realization that Jesus’ followers are innocent and telling the truth—their master has indeed risen from the grave. Clavius himself has seen evidence that shatters his pagan worldview: “I cannot reconcile all of this with the world I knew,” he complains, until he realizes that the “day without death” he craves can be found in Jesus’ promise of eternal life.
Today is the premiere of the somewhat more family-friendly The Young Messiah, a film directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh and co-written with his wife Betsy [full disclosure: the Nowrastehs are friends of mine and I have assisted Cyrus on other projects]. Based on an Anne Rice novel and focused on the emotional dynamics of Jesus’ family, the movie depicts a very human seven-year-old Son of God struggling with the budding awareness of his own divine nature, which causes him to question who he really is and why he is here.
Like Joseph Fiennes in Risen, The Young Messiah’s Sean Bean (a familiar face from Game of Thrones and countless others) plays a war-weary, unbelieving Roman soldier whose personal confrontation with Jesus shakes him to the core. Tasked with finding and killing the young boy, whom the decadent King Herod perceives to be a threat, Bean tracks Jesus down in the Jerusalem temple, but is awed—and redeemed—by the child’s undeniable spiritual power.
As Rice herself put it, the film “invites the viewer to reflect on what it might have been like for Jesus to put aside His Omniscience as God and grow up amongst us. The film is an engulfing and entertaining and edifying depiction of the Son of God as a child.” Indeed it is. Rice added that she is “grateful for countless emails from readers telling me [that her] novel deepened their sense of the reality of Jesus, or made Him real for them in a way that was entirely new,” and now the film version will make that same impact on a much wider movie audience.
Even low-budget indie Christian films today tend to do well financially because Christian audiences are hungry for movies, regardless of their quality, that affirm their values. But in Risen and The Young Messiah, faith-based films have finally come into their own as high-quality cinematic storytelling that Christians don’t either have to reject for theological reasons (such as director Darren Aronofsky’s environmentalist revision of Noah and the Ark) or be embarrassed by (Kirk Cameron’s earnest but amateurish Fireproof).
Both Risen and The Young Messiah feature top-notch storytelling, production values, and acting. Both engage audiences with understated, character-driven emotional punches rather than relying on bombastic special effects. Despite their somewhat fictionalized premises, both exhibit a clear reverence for the Biblical message and a respect for the Christian audiences at whom these movies are largely aimed. Both skillfully and powerfully portray unique perspectives on Jesus that we haven’t seen onscreen before—his early years and post-resurrection—and both successfully capture Jesus’ humanity as well as his divinity.
One of the production companies behind The Young Messiah is 1492 Pictures, run by Chris Columbus, the producer and director of blockbusters like the Harry Potter films. He calls the movie “the greatest story never told” and believes that “there’s a huge audience out there for faith based movies.” Having a powerhouse like Columbus behind such a superlative, respectful film as The Young Messiah will help it find that huge audience and encourage Hollywood support for other faith-based projects—and that bodes well for the future of Christian films.