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What would Jesus think of entertainment producers who translated his life story to the big screen in the hopes of a multimillion dollar payout? Does it make a difference if the film intends to bolster the faith of believers through shock and awe? What if it fails entirely at convincing doubters and skeptics of his worldview — or even at explaining why they should share his values?
All of the above applies to “Son of God,” a lavish hunk of sermon-tainment with all the gravitas of a Communion wafer. Married producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey had director Christopher Spencer and editor Robert Hall slice and dice their ten-hour History Channel miniseries “The Bible” (2013) — the one that supposedly cast a President Obama look-alike as Satan — into a 138-minute feature. (Perhaps to avoid further controversy, Satan does not appear in this film.)
“Son of God” boasts impressive costumes, convincing violence, location shooting (in Morocco), and a largely white cast with British accents — all of which make it a visually ambitious show on par with TV’s “Game of Thrones.” Also like the HBO show, it’s most compelling as a parable about realpolitik and least interesting whenever magic enters the equation.
After a quick montage through the Old Testament’s greatest hits and the nativity scene, the biopic finds thirtysomething Jesus (Portuguese model-turned-actor Diogo Morgado) on the precipice of sooth-saying stardom. As the first century’s premier ad man, he says nothing but promises everything by speaking entirely in metaphors (“I am the Way and the Truth and the Life”) with pauses between phrases as if to accommodate bursts of applause.
What’s it like to be a demi-god? That’s not a question “Son of God” cares to ask. Though Jesus was also a son of man, this messiah is a church shrine made flesh – he’s only as expressive as his wavy, surfer-dude hair. Morgado isn’t given much to do other than smiling beatifically at dirt-faced extras and occasionally pointing his face toward a holy light shining from above. The few times he’s offered the chance to prove his chops, he squints rather than emote.
But Jesus needn’t be human; his right-hand man Peter (Darwin Shaw) provides the requisite reaction shots for audience identification.
“Son of God” dutifully dramatizes Jesus’ most iconic miracles, like the resurrection of Lazarus, the multiplication of the fish and bread loaves, and the stroll on a stormy sea. The earnestness of these scenes sometimes veers into camp. When Peter’s conviction that he can walk on water like his teacher momentarily falters, for instance, his glance downward results in a Wile E. Coyote-like plummet. And with no narrative or logical transition between Jesus’ supernatural deeds, they have all the impact of a video scrapbook.
But the film gains in thematic complexity (and moral murkiness) as Jesus multiplies his followers. His apparent powers and assurances of a better life lead many to believe he’ll lead a Jewish uprising against the despotic Pontius Pilate (Greg Hicks). It’s clear his popularity as a inspirational preacher stems from his early (Jewish) converts’ political dissatisfaction — a fascinating wrinkle to Jesus’ career as a spiritual leader. But the Prince of Peace lives up to his name; he even seems to encourage the Jews to continue paying burdensome taxes to their Roman colonialists.
While Jesus inadvertently stirs up ethnic pride and unrest in outlying Nazareth, Pilate and the Jewish high priest Caiaphas (Adrian Schiller) plot jointly and independently to launch a public relations campaign that discredits the prophet as a blasphemer and neutralizes the threat of political revolt. These scenes of governmental intrigue are the film’s highlight because they’re the most scripted and conventionally constructed. (Writing credits go to Spencer, Richard Bedser, Colin Swash, and Nic Young.)
Though executing Jesus would weigh on neither politician’s conscience, both Pilate and Caiaphas are adamant they not take the blame for the death sentence. Compared to careerist strongman Pilate, who wants to stamp out rebellion to prove his managerial abilities, Caiaphas fears that a Jewish riot could lead to even harsher restrictions on his people, even genocide. The high priest should therefore be a somewhat sympathetic figure, but “Son of God” isn’t really concerned with the fate of the Jews.
Rather, it squarely lays the blame for Jesus’ death at Caiaphas’ feet, thus reviving the pre-Vatican II stance that the Jewish people are responsible for condemning Christ to the cross. (Caiaphas gets the opportunity to offer Jesus amnesty, but opts to free a murderer instead.) It doesn’t help that, like Disney’s “Aladdin,” a character’s goodness can be seen discerned from his Northern European features (including Morgado’s), while a villain’s wickedness corresponds to a more Semitic visage (like Joe Wredden’s Judas Iscariot and Paul Marc Davis’ pharisee).
(For the record, the Anti-Defamation League has given its stamp of approval to Burnett and Downey’s film.)
Like Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” “Son of God” devotes what feels like eons to Jesus’ multistage mortification. But the film never explains the purpose of his extended suffering: that his gory spectacle of a death accentuates the mortal sacrifice he undertakes so that his followers may follow him to a blissful afterlife. Without that religious context, the whippings and stabbings resonate only as a gratuitously sadistic show of Roman might.
(Or so says this atheist; the religious woman next to me at the press screening wept her eyes out during these scenes of torture.)
Given its high production values and adherence to Church orthodoxy, “Son of God” is the kind of film that’ll be seen in Sunday school class for years, maybe decades, to come. Other than its suggestion that a Jewish leader attempting to save his people from annihilation deserves to be blamed for Jesus’ brutal death, though, Burnett and Downey’s vision of Christ has little to say on its own.