Son of God: Film Review

A television-birthed feature that will speak mostly to the devoted.

The Christian film, based on Mark Burnett and Roma Downey's 10-hour miniseries, is directed by Christopher Spencer and zooms in on "The Bible" lead, Diogo Morgado.

If the last big theatrical film about Jesus, the blockbusting The Passion of the Christ, in 2004, sensationalized the violence of the Nazarene's final hours, Son of God is notable, by contrast, for its missionary spirit, stressing in its climactic moments the duty of believers to spread the word about the savior's teachings to the world. As such, this quite mediocre spawned-from-television feature feels like a Jesus film designed primarily for true believers, meaning that the faith-based public that has already been put on alert by seal-of-approval-dispensing church leaders that this is a film to see will make the Fox release into a significant heartland attraction, at least at the outset, and then perennially in home viewing situations; others may feel that this is something they've already seen, or will wait to see, on TV. Results could also be big in particular foreign territories, starting with South America.

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Every major feature about Jesus has its own identity and raison d'etre: Cecil B. DeMille's silent The King of Kings was a spectacular call to faith, Nicholas Ray's King of Kings stressed Zionist politics, George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told was the ultimate Protestant version, Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew looked at Jesus the revolutionary, Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth miniseries was the great Catholic rendition, Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ emphasized Jesus' doubts and struggles, and so on.

What Son of God offers first and foremost is Jesus as pretty boy; there's no denying that Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado is easy on the eyes, but particularly in a time and place filled with scruffy desert folk with few opportunities to develop good grooming or sanitary habits. Morgado has a warm, welcoming smile that he flashes often, as well as eyes and slanting eyebrows that often spark a resemblance to the young Marlon Brando. One could plausibly propose that his is a smiling Jesus.

No doubt unintentionally, this is also a Jesus film that makes him look like some sort of conjurer or illusionist, a "miracle man," as Caiaphas derisively puts it, who stages incredible feats for the express purpose of gaining an audience and stirring up talk. Almost everything he does through the film's first act seems suspiciously like a stunt performed to amaze and create a reputation: providing Peter with fish where there are none, putting a crippled sinner on her feet, saving a condemned woman from being stoned, walking on water before his disciples during a storm and, most spectacularly, raising Lazarus from the dead (this is staged most unconvincingly, with Jesus expending but a few seconds' effort and Lazarus looking perfectly normal afterward, as if he'd just arisen from a nap rather than having been a rotting corpse for four days). The film feels terribly unbalanced as a result of paying undue attention to these miracles while minimizing Jesus' teachings and omitting other aspects of his life.

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Son of God represents an expansion and reassembly of material already seen as part of Roma Downey and Mark Burnett's spectacularly successful cable series The Bible, bits of which are incorporated here into an action-filled opening montage that uses snippets involving the creation, Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Goliath and others to set the stage for Jesus' arrival on the scene.

From the outset, the approach by lead writer Nic Young and director Christopher Spencer, heretofore a documentary director whose recent credits include the likes of Nazi Mega Weapons and Fighting the Red Baron, is to hammer home the obvious and avoid nuance at all costs. The Romans, played by guys who look and sound like they were recruited at English football stadiums and low-end pubs, do nothing but pummel, stab and otherwise abuse the residents of Judea, while the new prefect, Pontius Pilate (Greg Hicks), just sneers and indulges in private gladiatorial combat for sport, thereby removing the possibility of a more complex and interesting portrait of this often intriguingly equivocal figure.

Similarly one-dimensional is the chief Jewish villain, high priest Caiaphas (Adrian Schiller), whose immediate suspicions about the itinerant preacher quickly grow to the point where he considers Jesus such a threat that he enlists Judas' help in sealing his fate.

For a man who, at the outset, has told Peter that he his purpose is to do no less than "change the world," we hear only fragments of Jesus' lessons—the sermon on the mount is a mere throwaway—his association with John the Baptist is passed over and the forty days in the desert and temptation by Satan was cut at the last minute to avoid controversy stemming from the extreme resemblance between the actor playing Beelzebub and President Obama.

For a film that, at least initially, seems intent upon covering the arc of Jesus' ministry, which is generally reckoned to have spanned at least two years, it's very anxious to get to the climax; Jesus and the disciples arrive in Jerusalem for Passover at the 50-minute mark, leaving another 87 minutes to cover the same ground as The Passion of the Christ, from Jesus' disruption at the temple, Caiaphas' plotting, the Last Supper (shot entirely in close-ups, with no attempt at an "artistic" rendering) and Jesus' arrest, interrogation, flogging (quite graphic by the standards of anyone other than Mel Gibson), trial, agonizing ascent up the path to Golgotha (prolonged by liberal use of very extreme slow-motion), crucifixion (accompanied by a profusion of cut-away shots of producer Downey, as Mary, wearing the same anguished expression every time), burial and resurrection.

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At a point where most Jesus films wrap things up very quickly, it's actually here that Son of God achieves its one small measure of distinction; it devotes a reasonable amount of time to the reactions of Mary Magdalene (Amber Rose Revah) and the disciples (notably "Doubting Thomas") to their leader's return to life after three days and then, after 40 days, to Jesus' instructions to "go into the world and preach the gospel." It's an ending that not only concludes the film on an inspirational note but will invigorate activist Christians to rush out and follow Peter's climactic admonition that, "brothers and sisters, we have work to do."

In a film that is almost invariably heavy-handed and obvious from beginning to end, the one little imaginative piece of direction shows Judas, having fled in self-disgust from the Last Supper table, spitting out the piece of bread that Jesus has put in his mouth.

Shot in Morocco and evincing its TV-budget origins, the production features modest production values compared to most previous depictions of the same story, especially in the frequent and very cheesy-looking overview shots of Jerusalem. The score by Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe lumbers more than it soars.

Opens: February 28 (20th Century Fox)
Production: LightWorkers Media
Cast: Diogo Morgado, Greg Hicks, Adrian Schiller, Darwin Shaw, Sebastian Knapp, Joe Wredden, Simon Kunz, Paul Marc Davis, Matthew Gravelle, Amber Rose Revah, Roma Downey
Director: Christopher Spencer
Additional scenes directors: Tony Mitchell, Crispin Reece
Screenwriter: Nic Young
Additional screenwriters: Richard Bedser, Christopher Spencer, Colin Swash
Producers: Roma Downey, Mark Burnett, Richard Bedser
Director of photography: Rob Goldie
Additional cinematographers: Christopher Titus King, Peter Greenhalgh
Production designer: Alan Spalding
Costume designer: Ros Little
Editor: Rob Hall
Additional editors: Iain Kitching, Tom Parsons
Music: Hans Zimmer, Lorne Balfe
PG-13 rating, 138 minutes