Thursday, 13 February 2020

TV review: Messiah, Netflix (2020)

Because the acting is so good in this miniseries, which has 10 episodes, I was completely drawn in once I got past the first 15 minutes of ep 1. The drama centres on a man who comes out of Syria claiming to do God’s work. But you have to persist a little with this production.

A deceptively simple story allows the filmmakers to examine a range of issues confronting people in the West, including militant Islam, immigration, existential despair, and the search for meaning and justice that plagues everyone wherever they live. Naturally, Israel and America sit at the dramatic centre of events, but Russia and Iran also enter into the equation.

After five episodes (watched on one day; it took me three days to get through all eps) one thing I didn’t see – it was present only as a missed opportunity experienced off-camera by Rebecca Iguero (Stefania LaVie Owen) – was that traditional staple of cinematic drama: romance.

There are five leads. One is the al-Masih of the miniseries’ title (Mehdi Dehbi) who has long, black hair and a clipped beard and who looks like your traditional depiction of Jesus apart from his dark skin. There’s Felix Iguero (John Ortiz), an unexceptional Texas pastor who, at the outset, is in dire financial straits and who gravitates toward al-Masih by dint of their shared interest in a deity whose plan, while mysterious, is compelling.

I’ve already mentioned his daughter Rebecca, then there’s Eva Geller (Michelle Monaghan), a CIA officer who struggles with her own problems and who is trying to understand who al-Masih is and what he seeks to achieve. Then there’s Aviram Dahan (Tomer Sisley), a Shin Bet (Israeli internal security service) officer who gets in trouble with his superiors and who also has an interest in al-Masih.

Just looking at this list you can start to understand some things about this fascinating Netflix series. Because of the attraction of the West for people who live in the third world, and because of the aimlessness of life for many people who live in the West, the stories contained in this series, and the themes they illustrate, are universal. I liked the way that so many topical issues are mixed into the story, and I loved the writing and performances. Even secondary actors do good work – such as Eva’s father Zelman Katz (played by Philip Baker Hall) – helping to sustain the fiction and to keep the viewer engaged.

The speed at which the story of the “messiah” gathers momentum in the community is helped by the way the filmmakers deploy social media. When Rebecca takes a photo and posts it on Instagram, the response from the community is large and her mobile phone screen is displayed on the TV for you to see her posts and the number of likes made by people who, in her fictional world, have seen it and engaged with it. Text messages that Eva sends are, likewise, shown on your TV screen so that you can follow important conversations she has with people in other localities.

Such tactics give immediacy to the drama and faithfully demonstrate how the internet has changed our world. This series could not have been made even five years ago (although, perhaps it should have been). Overall, an impressive production. Far better than your average limited commercial TV series, in my view.

We all search for meaning in our own ways, and fiction gives us the opportunity to feel the satisfaction of resolution, even if it is only temporary relief. Brief respite from the pain of existence is, sometimes, all we can hope for.

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