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Antonello da Messina, Virgin of the Annunciation (detail)
Review Film

To Believe Or Not To Believe

Mark Thomas

Messiah. Netflix 2020

A proven method for keeping film and television audiences on the hook is to introduce them to a secret at the beginning of your story, with the promise that at story’s end the secret will be revealed. In the case of The X-Files: was Mulder’s sister really abducted by aliens, whose existence the government has been covering up? In the case of Lost: What is The Island? The Netflix original series Messiah is powered by what is arguably the Greatest Secret Ever Teased in the history of TV drama: Is this man they are calling al-Masih (Arabic for “the Messiah”) really who he seems to be. And is this really, as this man proclaims, “the end of history”?

This was the mystery that, for me, made Season One of this extraordinary television phenomenon so compelling. The man the world will come to call al-Masih (played by Mehdi Dehbi) appears first in Damascus, preaching against ISIS, from the Koran, condemning them as heretics. He predicts the wrath of God is coming to deliver ISIS a shameful final defeat and deliver the people from their suffering. As he is preaching, a sandstorm of biblical proportions arrives. Everyone flees except for the preacher, who continues proclaiming salvation as he is buffeted by the storm. And lo, ISIS is indeed thwarted, their last resurgence buried, reminiscent of how the Red Sea swallowed up those persecuting God’s people. Soon two thousand people are following the imam to the Israeli border—to their “destiny,” as he puts it. On the way he continues to preach to his followers: his preaching is radical, yet apparently unimpeachable, and is delivered with a fearless authority. Indeed, he casts aside objections and objectors (sometimes literally) with a fearlessness that might be mistaken by some as megalomania (“Humanity is now a rudderless boat. Cling to me,” he says). But he is also gentle toward his faithful flock, particularly Jibril (Sayyid El Alami), whose father and mother both were victims of the violence in the region. It is he who declares the imam to be “Isa [Jesus] returned.”

It’s worth noting that our mystery man, in bringing his disciples to the Israeli border in an apparent act of protest against Israeli occupation and injustice, actually looks more like someone whom Muslims would call the Mahdi, the one who in the Islamic apocalypse will arrive to unite and empower all Muslims. (The return of Jesus is expected to follow after the Mahdi, and he is expected by Muslims to repudiate Christianity and affirm traditional dietary laws.) But when al-Masih and his disciples arrive at the border, he diffuses the call rising up among his followers to march across the border into battle by collecting every one of their weapons. Whatever “destiny” al-Masih is calling his disciples to, it is apparently neither jihad nor the overthrow of Israel (though Jibril will end up leading al-Masih’s disciples in a non-violent demonstration on Israel’s border, a moment which is by far the show’s most iconic moment, not to mention a powerful message to the world in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a heart-breaking reality.)

Meanwhile, a scrambling CIA, represented here by Eva Geller (Michelle Monaghan), in reaction to the developing storm on the border and the growing consternation of both US and Israeli governments, searches the CIA’s massive facial recognition database in order to get a bead on this troublemaker...and can’t find him. Like this guy dropped out of the sky or something. Not gonna lie, this moment gave me chills: was I watching what the return of Jesus might look like today? For indeed, were Jesus to come again in our midst, the darkness (which is not an unfair description of the global intelligence community) would not be able to comprehend him. And this apparently Muslim preacher‘s radical “heterodoxy” feels just as dangerous and electrifying as Jesus’ preaching to his fellow Israelites must have. Not to mention the quiet, unsettling energy and charisma of the man himself. Put it all together with the note-perfect cultural realism—the political and media waves caused by every move our mystery man makes—and the result is thrilling, riveting television.

Then things start to get weird, or rather, wondrous: al-Masih, as he is being interrogated by Israeli intelligence operative Avarim Dahan (Tomer Sisley) in a black-site detention facility, calls himself The Word. He declares he is from Israel “originally,” but is now “with God.” Knows not only Avarim’s name, but the darkness of his past—including the moment of darkness that claimed Avarim’s Jewish faith. Then he inexplicably escapes—literally vanishes—from his cell. And yet, for all these apparent theophanies, the mystery persists: Eva surmises that al-Masih may have had help and insight provided to him by unseen operators, who may be using him for their own political purposes, to introduce even greater unrest and instability into the region. Then al-Masih reappears at the Temple Mount mosque in Jerusalem, condemning religious division, warning of imminent judgment. Big Second Coming energy as excited murmurs ripple through the crowd. Israeli police arrive, and begin closing in on the now-internationally-known agitator. A shot rings out and a boy falls at al-Masih’s feet: a shot heard almost instantly around the internet-enabled world, as al-Masih works a miracle, then walks through their midst and disappears. The mother of all cliffhangers: hook, line and sinker swallowed.

Yet by the end of the next episode’s opening act, I found myself thrown back. Because al-Masih has now turned up in the middle of a very different story: a story set in rural Texas, with a dramatically different mise-en-scène and cast of characters. Granted, it’s a story which is profoundly winning in its realistic depiction of a family in crisis, suffering both financially and spiritually. But the stunning arrival of al-Masih on the scene delivers a bit of a smack in the gob to the show’s central mystery. There’s just no way this guy could have suddenly appeared on the other side of the globe if he really was just a hoax-master with a Messiah complex. The network of private air-travel which Eva speculates he must have used to trans-locate so quickly would have been super-sonic, to say nothing of his ground-game. Looks like he really has to be the One, right? But then, almost as if the show’s writers knew they needed to put their finger on the other side of the scales to keep us guessing for the moment, Eva starts coming up with one piece of devastating documented dirt on “al-Masih” after another, and before long it looks like there’s no way this man could be anything other than a master trickster powered by delusions of grandeur. The result is that the glory of the finale’s astonishing epiphany is more than a little tarnished by its apparent irreconcilability with what has (and what hasn’t) come before. Maybe fans on TV Twitter have already explained how it all fits together, but it all feels a bit like a shell game—ironic, as that’s the sort of trickery of which al-Masih (or Payam Golshiri, as he was known in a previous incarnation) has himself been accused during his rise to fame.

Adding to the difficulty of what is arguably the show’s narrative schizophrenia (that is, its apparent careening between the mutually-exclusive extremes of “he must be” and “he can’t be”) is the scold the show seems to give the viewer at season’s end. Just as I loved the geopolitical realism of the Palestinian plotline, I loved the psychological realism of the show’s depiction of one family’s struggle in the darkness of doubt—a darkness made much deeper when al-Masih gets in a car and drives away, leaving his host family and first disciples in the New World all high-and-dry-Miss-American-Pie. (Meanwhile his followers in Palestine have been left to fall into harm’s way, and in the case of Jibril, into the hands of bad actors.) As if all this weren’t enough of a scandal, moments later al-Masih’s identity as Payam Golshiri is outed before the family’s eyes on national television. But then, despite all these red flags on the field, all these contraindications to the Messiah’s authenticity, suddenly at the end we have the show’s final and quite definitive epiphany. “See, you just gotta believe,” the folks who brought us Touched by an Angel and Son of God seem to be telling us. What’s that you say? It doesn’t all fit together? Your reason is crying foul? O ye of little faith. al-Masih moves in mysterious ways (whichever way there’s a soul that needs salvation, apparently, nevermind what or who gets left behind).

Art is like the one true religion: It lives in the concrete. Ignatius of Loyola and Luigi Giussani created imaginative exercises for the faithful that put you at Jesus’ side, living in the world beside Him, for the sake of knowing Him intimately. Insofar as Messiah is committed to faithfulness to reality in all its particulars, it is artistically masterful and edifying. But insofar as Messiah has skewed random for the sake of giving Christians in America a pep talk in believing despite everything (even good sense, apparently), it risks becomes something other than art, and something less than edifying. But apparently there’s another season in the works, so maybe upcoming revelations will remove my stumbling blocks. Maybe all the counter-evidence was just the forces of Hell conspiring to weave a web of deceit in order to throw shade on the chosen one of God. Or maybe this is actually a different sort of apocalyptic tale, a story of the coming of him whom Muslims call ‘Al-Masih ad-Dajjal,’ the false Messiah, the one whom Christians call the Anti-Christ. In any event, it seems final judgment on the show’s storytelling must in justice wait for another day. Messiah may yet redeem itself.

Mark Thomas is a screenwriter and critic.

Humanum: Issues in Family, Culture & Science
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