For filmmakers, The Young Messiah was a labor of love

Movie centering on the life of the child Jesus opens this weekend.

Focus Features’ movie The Young Messiah, which opens in theaters this weekend, tells a story of a year in the life of the 7-year-old Jesus as he, in his human consciousness, begins to discover who he is. Stars include Adam Greaves-Neal as Jesus and Sara Lazzaro as Mary; the film is directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh, whose credits include the 2008 film The Stoning of Soraya M., with Jim Caviezel.

Early reviews of the film have been good, and it has received endorsements from prominent Catholic bishops. Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said the film 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.” Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley described the movie as “captivating, inspiring, and deeply moving.”

Many of the stars and crew gathered for a Los Angeles premiere on March 10; CWR was invited to meet them and screen the movie.

Casting Jesus

Key to the film’s success was casting the right boy to play Jesus, said producer Michael Barnathan. Two thousand boys turned out for a casting call, but nine-year-old Adam Greaves-Neal was “the only kid who came close to what we were looking for,” Barnathan said.

Greaves-Neal is from the suburbs of London, and has acting since age 6. When his acting agency called him about playing the role he decided to audition, although he thought, “I probably won’t get it.”

But Nowrasteh said when he saw Greaves-Neal, he knew right away he had found his Jesus. “Adam shines,” he said. “The camera loves him. He is extraordinarily bright, and really delivers on his performance.”

Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, wrote the screenplay for The Young Messiah, and is the wife of the film’s director. She marveled that despite the pressure on him during filming, Greaves-Neal managed to stay good-humored, delivering a “fantastic” performance.

Mark Radcliffe, another producer, noted that “Adam had the benefit of a lot of good coaching from Cyrus. It was an ongoing process explaining the role to him, and helping him to be successful at it.”

The most important relationship portrayed in the film is that of the boy Jesus and his mother Mary, portrayed by Italian-American actress Sara Lazzaro. Although she does not have any children of her own, Lazzaro said, “Adam and I got to know one another as people, so we could portray a convincing mother-son bond on camera. I think what we were able to capture was both genuine and pure.”

Playing the most revered woman in history no small challenge, Lazzaro added.  “It was an honor and a privilege, but also quite daunting,” she said.

Greaves-Neal said that his closeness with Lazzaro, as well as with all of his on-screen family, developed to such a point that when shooting ended “we did feel like family.”

Patient director

Greaves-Neal admits that he couldn’t have been successful without the directing expertise of Nowrasteh. He was nervous when he began filming, he said, “but Cyrus was patient with me. If I did something wrong, we’d talk about it, and he’d help me to get it right. There was a lot of pressure on him to make this movie, but he never got mad at me.”

Lazzaro added, “He was precise in what he wanted, and kept after us until he got it.”

Paul Ireland, who plays the Roman Optio in the movie, also noted that while there was much pressure on Nowrasteh to make the film a success, he was able to direct the film “with caring and understanding.” 

Ireland’s real-life son, Finn McLeod Ireland, age 13, also had a part in the film, as Jesus’ cousin James.  Finn said, “I marveled at the way Cyrus got such a good performance out of the both of us.”

Years in the making

Barnathan said The Young Messiah was years in the making. He and fellow producer Chris Columbus were once roommates and had discussed the possibility of doing a movie about the private life of Jesus. When Nowrasteh approached them with his vision for The Young Messiah, they knew their dream would become a reality.

Nowrasteh said the script relied heavily on the input of biblical and theological scholars. Working with his wife Betsy, Nowrasteh sought to create a character that was “authentic and consistent as He comes to a full knowledge about Himself,” Betsy said.

Radcliffe added that since The Young Messiah centered on a depiction of Christ, worshipped by millions throughout the world, the production was “careful to remain respectful.”

Exotic locations

To aid in the telling of the story, the production team sought out exotic locations in countries such as Italy and Jordan.

“We had tremendous logistical challenges,” Radcliffe said. “We had to travel to every location, many very remote, bringing with us our equipment and animals. It was hard to keep to our budget.”

Betsy Nowrasteh recalled the challenge of filming a river scene. Trained divers were standing by, she said, “because we didn’t want Adam to drown.” The weather was good throughout, she said, and production was completed a day ahead of schedule.

Hands-down the favorite location of the cast and crew was the historic town of Matera, Italy. Ireland recalled, “It was amazing. They had houses built into the side of a mountain. It was stunning waking up in the morning with your family and being in such a place.”

Demand for Christian films

Nowrasteh predicted that the film would do well, and thought more such Christian films would be made. He reflected, “The story of Christ really is the greatest story ever told. It is original and unique. Our film was a new take on that story, and we’re quite pleased with the result.”

Betsy Nowrasteh added, “A film about the life of a young Jesus has never been done before. We think that audiences will like it, and want more. Recent years have proven that there is a demand for Christian films.”

Greaves-Neal said he was looking into future movie roles. He admitted that it was hard getting used to being the center of attention at such a young age, “but I’m trying to get to be more comfortable with it.”

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About Jim Graves 217 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.