No one tale has dominated cinema more than the story of Jesus. Starting in 1912 with From the Manger to the Cross, to the epics of the 1950s, to Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, the subject has been covered ad nauseam. When yet another Biblical adaptation comes along, the question to ask is not so much how it was made, but why — and if it was necessary.
Because the “why” in this instance seems to be to inspire Christians and spread the teachings of Jesus instead of break new aesthetic, spiritual or historical ground, the answer to that final question is probably no. However, more so than from most movies, what you take away from Son of God will depend upon what you bring into it. Devout Christians may find it powerful, casual church-goers may find it moving but slightly heavy-handed, and some non-Christians, especially agnostics and atheists, will find it just plain preachy, despite the claims of producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, whom I interviewed, that it can succeed secularly. Still, because I’m no biblical or historical scholar, an opinion on only the quality of the film seems appropriate.
Directed by Christopher Spencer and featuring Downey as Mother Mary, this is a big-screen reworking of the History Channel miniseries The Bible, and it feels too much like a TV movie. Indeed, Downey told me that about three-quarters of the film consists of scenes from the miniseries, re-edited for the theatrical release. Although paced well, transitions between some of those scenes are a bit clunky, resulting in lost momentum, which speaks to the difficulty of cutting 10 hours to 135 minutes while still including the most important parts of the story, such as Jesus’ birth, his meetings with his disciples, his miracles and his crucifixion.
Performances range from solid to stale. Sebastian Knapp, as John, who often functions as narrator and whose own story bookends the film, is a standout, as is Adrian Schiller as High Priest Caiaphas. (The latter character’s struggles with his fellow Jews and Pontius Pilate over Jesus’ fate are the movie’s most intriguing moments.) Diogo Morgado plays Jesus, and though the Portuguese actor looks and feels right, his British accent and line readings are slightly sloppy. His scenes of suffering are predictably difficult to watch, yet pale in comparison with the torture from Gibson’s adaptation which, though overrated, was a cinematic step above this latest offering. Son of God also avoids controversy similar to Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ by playing the story straight and not including the miniseries’ scenes of Satan, after critics complained that the actor bore a resemblance to President Obama.
In the movie, Pilate predicts that, following his death, Jesus will be forgotten in a week. Though those words proved preposterously untrue, they somehow seem fitting for this film. While it’s not without merit, after the overly emotional swells of Hans Zimmer’s score have died away and a resurrected Jesus says his final goodbye to his disciples, Son of God quickly fades from memory.