Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 23 January 2020

What does Netflix's 'The Messiah' preach?

If you were looking forward to a story unfolding around the Middle East then The Messiah is likely to disappoint

Netflix's Messiah explores the life of Al-Masih who supposedly performs miracles and amasses thousands of followers. Courtesy Netflix 
Netflix's Messiah explores the life of Al-Masih who supposedly performs miracles and amasses thousands of followers. Courtesy Netflix 

Netflix’s Messiah was available to stream on New Year’s Day, but well before its release, there was a lot of controversy surrounding the 10-part series. Though some of it was filmed in Jordan, the kingdom’s Royal Commission didn’t want it to be broadcast in the country. A quick Google search will throw up several descriptions of the show being described as controversial.

ontroversy can be good for a programme – it can muster ­interest, boost ratings and reel in viewers. But it can also present a promise to deal with subjects others skirt around, to confront taboo topics in a non-conventional way. To give viewers the I-can’t-believe-they-did-that reaction. But Messiah does none of that.

Michelle Monaghan stars as the CIA Agent determined to find out who the mysterious man, played by Mehdi Dehbi, really is. Courtesy Netflix 
Michelle Monaghan stars as the CIA Agent determined to find out who the mysterious man, played by Mehdi Dehbi, really is. Courtesy Netflix

The storyline

Most of the series pivots around the question of whether Al-Masih, played by ­Tunisian-Belgian actor Mehdi Dehbi, is really the second coming of Jesus. Dehbi is well-cast in the role. Calm, cryptic and with perfect posture, he offers just enough intrigue to keep us from back-pedalling to the title page, looking for something else to watch.

We meet Al-Masih only two minutes into the show. He stands in front of a disgruntled crowd in war-torn Damascus as ISIS forces encircle the city. He warns people against joining the terrorist group, citing how they twist God’s words for their personal gain. When a supernatural sandstorm sweeps the city and drives the attackers away, many assume Al-Masih conjured it up, and the supposed feat earns him about 2,000 followers – a prominent face in the crowd is Jibril Medina (Sayyid El Alami), a Syrian-Palestinian orphan looking for answers – all of whom decide to go with him into the Syrian Desert with no food or water. If you plan to watch the series, there are spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.

We follow Al-Masih through the Syrian Desert to the Israeli border. There, he is taken into custody and interrogated by an Israeli agent (Tomer Sisley) who is accused by Al-Masih of being burdened by hate. Much to the agent’s confusion, Al-Masih seems to know more about him and his questionable past, and by the end of the first ­episode, Al-Masih has vanished from his cell.

Gunshots ring out and a little boy is wounded. Al-Masih performs his first miracle.

Representing our scepticism in the messiah is CIA case officer Eva Geller, played by Michelle Monaghan. A workaholic who seems estranged from any close relationship, she is focused on tracking down this mysterious man, believing that he could incite war in the Middle East.

When we meet Al-Masih again, he is on the steps of the sacred Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. With word having already spread of his deed in Syria, people flock around him and Israeli intelligence soon arrives on the scene. Gunshots are fired and a little boy is wounded. Al-Masih performs his first miracle: he places his palm on the boy’s abdomen and heals the wound.

If you hoped this show was going to have a story that would unfold around the Middle East, prepare to be disappointed. By the third episode, viewers are catapulted to the other side of the world – to Texas – where Al-Masih saves a reverend’s daughter from a tornado. Other than a terrorist plot to bomb a mosque where Medina is scheduled to give a speech, the show’s plot pretty much leaves the Middle East from here.

A murky message

Early on, it is evident that this show is less about the messiah, than those coming into his orbit. Almost all of the characters come from precarious backgrounds.

There is the hate-filled Israeli intelligence officer, whose marriage is falling apart; the CIA workaholic who keeps her father at arm’s length; and the overbearing Texan reverend and his runaway daughter. The parallelisms suggest the show is trying to send a message about maintaining healthy family bonds. But the message is murky.

The plot meanders between the characters, all of whom are rigidly confined in their archetypal roles. The writing is porous and quite often ­predictable. Still, it is fun to see the Woodstock-gone-to-church crowds form as Al-Masih travels from Texas to Washington, DC.

The online buzz around the series has been infinitely more entertaining than the show itself. Many have speculated that Al-Masih is in fact based on Islam’s false messiah figure. That figure is blind in one eye, which numerous Twitter posts have suggested Al-Masih will turn out to be. Even though the first season ended with the messiah keeping both his eyes, there’s still a chance that he could be proved as a false messiah in season two. Especially when there are hints to Medina’s messianic powers, which suggest that he could be the real messiah.

The show keeps from planting firm ideological or political beliefs, which is a good thing. But the plot feels lacking as far as stakes go. As news of Al-Masih’s real name breaks, many of the characters return to doing what they were before discovering Al-Masih. Even the reverend, who was ready to burn his church before Al-­Masih arrived to restore his faith, goes ahead and burns down the church.

By the end of the show, we too go back to exactly what we were doing before Messiah, slightly disappointed at having spent nearly ten hours watching it.

Updated: January 5, 2020 07:16 PM

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