There are the Isis forces bringing tanks to take Damascus, a mother explaining to her son that God ‘had a plan’ for his father and that’s why he died; then the preacher who insists God is bringing salvation, just before an epic sandstorm hits that drives out the invaders. The preacher is hailed as a new Messiah but is the sandstorm a miracle or simply freak weather?
The intelligent script by Australian Michael Petroni (The Book Thief) offers viewers just enough information about his characters, allowing us to fill in the picture. Petroni is no stranger to supernatural and spiritual themes. His own writing/directing efforts made in Australia, Till Human Voices Wake and Backtrack, are both ghost themed stories, and Petroni told creativewriting.com that in Backtrack “I wanted to play with the reader’s assumptions and make a lot of missteps for the reader.” Messiah is built on similar tantalising tension.
The main protagonist is Eva, a CIA agent. She is a supreme rationalist and married to the job, though her personal life is tragic. She, more than most, could do with a miracle but she is bent on disproving the charismatic Messiah, as she is suspicious of his growing following that could destabilise the situation in Damascus.
Eva Geller is played by Michelle Moynahan (Mission Impossible: Fallout) as an uptight career woman, and ex-CIA father’s daughter on a mission of her own. Petroni has written a male counterpart to Eva’s character, field officer Aviram Dahab, (Tomer Sisley, Balthazar), who works on the ground in Damascus. He is also a highly trained professional haunted by unresolved demons. Aviram is making a mess of split parenting and is burdened by guilt from past criminal actions.
On separate occasions, Aviram and Eva each have to face encounters with the Messiah when they interrogate him, and these charged meetings set up the central question – is he a prophet bringing hope or a charlatan spreading death? There is plenty to keep you guessing.
The series depends on the casting of Messiah and Belgian actor Mendhi Dehbi (Most Wanted Man) plays the supposed prophet’s actions and reactions with enough ambivalence to stoke the mystery. His composure and unwavering message can be equally read as spiritual master or political terrorist.
The underlying premise is of course a what if? In this case, what if Jesus turned up in the modern-day Middle East? One ramification that the series takes hold of is that the Messiah’s message and phenomenon would be speeded up and amplified by broadcasting and social media.
Talking of social media, real life YouTube and Facebook erupted when the Netflix trailers aired. Speculations went viral with accusations the show gave the game away from the outset by linking the Messiah character with the name Dajjal, a term recognised as ‘Deceiver’ by Arabic speakers. Given the writer’s skill and track record it would be strange if the whole premise was flagged so obviously. Whether the name is a spectacular gaffe or a red herring, there are still many other layers and twists to evolving and resolving this tight and intriguing story.
Two seasoned Australian directors are at the helm. James McTeigue (V for vendetta, Sense8) launches six episodes while Kate Woods (Looking for Alibrandi, Castle, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) takes the other four.
Production values are as good as we’ve come to expect on recent TV series. Cinematic quality enhances the story scope, especially in the middle eastern desert and city scenes. Frequent aerial shots enhance the sense of scale and suggest an omniscient view to further illustrate the messianic theme.
Colour palette and expert lighting add to the dramatic contrast between the cold clinical world of the CIA versus the primitive earthiness of the Messiah’s world, further underlining themes of the clash of superstition and intellect. The two worlds are also contrasted by language, English and subtitled Arabic. There’s a nice playing of clipped evasion and visible text messages in Eva’s world against how the Messiah talks in absolutes, eg. “If you look for comfort you never find truth.”
Apart from the two protagonists for whom the Messiah becomes a catalyst, we also follow teenager Jibril (Sayyid El Alami) the boy whose mother spoke of God’s plan. When Jibril becomes a disciple, the stakes are raised further as we hope he has found a legitimate saviour and fear he is fodder for extremist politics. Another innocent is the troubled daughter of a mid west pastor whose church also becomes the centre of a miracle.
In the end we’ll get the truth and payoff Petroni believes our current culture needs and/or deserves, with plenty of triggers for debate and conjecture about international politics and spirituality in the process.