The History Channel miniseries “The Bible” was a huge success—financially at least—and so it’s not surprising that its makers have decided to squeeze a bit more out of their surprising golden egg by editing most of the portions of it centering on Jesus, along with some outtakes and added footage, into a biography of sorts and releasing it as an Easter feature film. The title “Son of God” should be sufficient to forewarn viewers that the result is an act of faith as much as of filmmaking, though one suspects that the prosperity gospel is as much a motive behind it as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
It should be noted at once that visually the film looks like what it is—a blown-up version of something made-for-TV. With its mediocre CGI and model work, it looks less like the glossy “King of Kings” of Samuel Bronston or George Stevens’ “The Greatest Story Ever Told” than Pier Paolo Pasolini’s stark “Gospel According to St. Matthew.” But in terms of message it resembles its Hollywood forebears rather than Pasolini’s portrait. “Son of God” is as reverential as they are.
It’s also equally choppy and episodic. That’s partially the result of its being cobbled together from mostly existing forage, but also reflective of its sources, the gospels, which are not terribly strong on transitional passages. There’s an effort to give the film some narrative flow by presenting it as a sort of extended flashback, a recollection by John of Patmos (identified with the author of the Gospel as well as the Book of Revelation—a historically dubious assumption, though one that also allows the insertion of a few excerpts from the Old Testament portions of “The Bible”). But it doesn’t help much; the film comes across as a sort of “greatest hits” assemblage.
Some viewers, moreover, might complain about—or at least question—what’s included and what’s omitted. The makers have bowed to practicality by not using the sequence of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, which became a source of controversy when the miniseries was aired because some thought that the actor who played the devil bore a striking resemblance to Barack Obama. Its absence is unfortunate in one sense, however, since its presence would have created a nice symmetry with the post-Resurrection sequence at the end (both covering forty days). And its omission makes for a rather hurried introductory Nativity scene.
Other choices suggest a particular theological stance, even though the intent is to be non-denominational. There’s an emphasis, for example, on the importance of simple belief that certainly points toward a Protestant “sola fide” message. And though the calling of Peter is dramatized and other sequences involving him are included (like his attempt to walk on water with Jesus, and his threefold denial after Jesus has been arrested), the “Thou art Peter” passage is not, even though later there’s a throwaway reference to him as Jesus’ rock.
One senses as well a careful effort to avoid the scent of anti-Semitism that became a charge against Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ.” It’s not possible to tell Jesus’ story without reference to the Pharisaic rejection of him, or to the role of Caiaphas, the High Priest, in his fall. But though these are hardly ignored, greater opprobrium is directed against the Romans. Pontius Pilate is depicted as a harsh governor, ready to use force when required, and portions of Scripture that might show some grace toward the Romans (the cure of the centurion’s servant, the statement of guard about Jesus after his death on the cross) are simply omitted. (Needless to say, although Pilate is shown washing his hands after sentencing Jesus to death, his words to the Jewish leaders and their response, as given in Matthew, are not included.)
One might also note how many of the most beautiful passages of dialogue are translated into a homely, vaguely modern idiom that often falls flat on the ear. That’s all part of the effort to humanize Jesus (shown in his genial chiding of Peter during the sequence of the disciple’s vocation). But though the procedure might make the picture more accessible to a contemporary audience, it makes for language that’s far less memorable than the King James version. (At the close, for example, Peter urges on the other disciples to the work of evangelization by saying, “We’ve got a lot of work to do.” That’s not a terribly inspiring way of putting it.)
Although “Son of God” doesn’t go as far as Gibson’s film did in depicting the brutalization of Jesus, moreover, it’s fairly gruesome and explicit in that regard, and one wonders how the target audience, many of whom complain about the level of violence in much contemporary entertainment, can be so tolerant of it in this special case. (One might also mention how enthusiastically this and other films about Jesus dramatize his assault on the moneylenders in the Temple, though the message of the episode might seem incompatible with their makers’ presumed hope of profiting financially from their use of his story. Pasolini must be excepted here, since his portrayal is entirely different from the others.)
With all of this understood, however, “Son of God” will probably be embraced by committed Christians for its obvious sincerity and fidelity to the gospels—down to presenting the miracles without apology—despite its many cinematic flaws, even if that faithfulness sometimes involves excision and debatable emphasis. The earnestness extends to the cast, with Diogo Morgado making an alternately amiable and serious Jesus (somewhat in the Jeffrey Hunter mode, though the accent sometimes sounds strange) and Darwin Shaw a down-to-earth Peter. The remaining disciples are more anonymous (even Joe Wreddon’s Judas is rather bland), but Amber Rose Revah is a suitably supportive Mary Magdalene, and Roma Downey’s Mary properly stricken during her son’s execution. Adrian Schiller and Greg Hicks get a lot of screen time as Caiaphas and Pilate, respectively, and though each does what’s demanded of him, they don’t really invest either character with much beyond a generalized intensity.
But those looking for an honest, unadorned account of Jesus’ story might do well instead to seek out Philip Seville’s underappreciated “The Gospel of John,” which uses a combination of narration and dramatization to cover that entire single book. Its very simplicity somehow captures the life of Jesus better than almost any other attempt to put it on screen.