Is He or Isn’t He?(Series Review: “Messiah”)

In modern day Syria, a complete unknown captures the attention of several hundred desperate souls. Seemingly overnight, he crosses an ocean and becomes a global sensation. Is he Christ returned. . . or something much darker?

SnapShot Plot

People are talking about Netflix’s original new series, Messiah, released on New Year’s Day, a programming no-brainer coming out of the most religious calendar period of the year. And given the shifting political sands and dramatic headlines out of the Middle East, this story about the very nature of Faith – from Syria to Israel, the Texas Bible Belt and even the secular halls of government in Wash., D.C. – delivers a spiritual appeal that feels quite palpable. It begins with a mysterious, Christ-like persona who pops up in Damascus, preaching to small crowds of mostly desperate, disenfranchised Syrians exhausted by an interminable siege upon their homes at the hands of a brutal regime and the latest assaults by ISIS. When a young boy named Jibril (recently orphaned by the death of his devout mother) stumbles upon the preacher, something in the speaker’s words and aspect touches him deeply and he becomes a devout follower of the man who comes to be known as AlMasih (the Messiah.) Belgian actor, Mehdi Dehbi delivers a convincingly ambiguous performance that draws no conclusions either way, demonstrating both a passivity of personality as well as occasional moments of slick cleverness that keep you guessing as to the character’s authenticity. Which is no mean feat and absolutely necessary for the plot to function at all; Al-Masih never overtly claims to be the Son of God, nor does he deny it. He simply lets others believe what they may about him, however suspicious his motives may start to appear, not to mention the occasional glint in his eye.

That suspicion hatches in the mind of Eva Geller, a CIA agent assigned to Israel who, when the activities of Al-Masih pop up on her radar, is convinced he’s a potentially dangerous con man, and so begins a professional investigation that soon becomes quite personal. Michelle Monaghan plays Eva in somber tones as a character struggling to come to terms with unspeakable loss in her own life. Hence her resistance to the possibility that Al-Masih could be the real deal brings with it a host of questions, some of which are practical while others speak to more soulful properties. Along the way, her path crosses with two individuals whose personal stories also intertwine with their work: an FBI agent named Mather (with his own emotional baggage) and a former Mossad agent named Aviram Dahan (played powerfully by Israeli-French actor Tomer Sisley, best known from the Largo Winch movies). Alas,too bad no one thought to provide subtitles for this actor, as his English was almost unintelligible.

As Al-Masih makes his way to America, arriving inexplicably at a remote Texas church in desperate need of salvation, he’s taken in by an ambitious Pastor, Felix Iguero (John Ortiz), whose daughter Rebecca he miraculously saves from an act of God. At that point, news of Al-Masih spreads far and wide, and the story continues in the Nation’s capital, where none other than the President of the United States has some questions of his own. Throughout the show, we keep returning to young Jibril (played by Sayyil El Alami), who may or may not be some kind of incarnation himself. Sound confusing? Trust me, once you surrender to the possibilities, it all begins to make sense. 

Parting Shot

Created by Australian writer and director Michael Petroni, Messiah is a very slow burn of a series that could have used some trimming from 10 episodes to 8 or even 6, and the effect would be a more suspenseful ride. Notwithstanding its sometimes slow pace and over-treatment of small details, this is a thinking-man’s religious mystery story. I couldn’t help but wonder about the parallels between the historic Jesus of Nazareth and this Al-Masih of Damascus. Both are at their core instantly polarizing figures among their growing throngs of followers and decriers, with existing regimes and leaders tracking their every move. No spoiler alert here, but by the end of the last episode, it looks as if this particular character is indeed a divine being. . . or maybe not. Maybe he’s an exceptionally crafty con artist exploiting the spiritual hunger and physical desperation of entire cultures. We’ll see.

Messiah is presently streaming on Netflix. Season Two hasn’t been announced yet, but it’s highly anticipated.

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