The unprecedented viewership for the History Channel’s miniseries The Bible, originally aired between March 3 and March 31 of 2013, had to have been a deciding factor in the making of Son of God, for which the episodes specifically focused on the life of Jesus Christ have been extracted, compiled, edited down two nearly two-and-a-half-hours, and theatrically released. This doesn’t strike me as the wisest way to make a movie, not just because TV viewership will probably not automatically translate to box office gold, but also because the truncating of such an expansive amount of footage is typically noticeable in the final cut.
It’s not so much in what has or hasn’t been included in terms of footage. It’s more of a general sense that something lies beneath the surface, and we’re not being allowed to see it.
This isn’t an incompetent film, neither narratively nor technically. It has a decent cast, the performances are universally good, and there are moments when special effects are convincingly utilized. And it would be unfair to call it preachy, since it is, after all, entirely about the very foundation of Christianity. Having said that, I didn’t in any way feel challenged by this movie – or, to be more to the point, by the mysterious nature of the title subject, who was, quite paradoxically, both a man and the son of God, tested not just by Satan but also by mortal desires. The vast majority of the film felt like a Sunday School sermon, presenting the highlights of Jesus’ life as a series of mechanical vignettes that neatly coincide with a general, rigid image accepted by many faithful followers as fact.
The Last Temptation of Christ is arguably the best film ever made about the life of Jesus, precisely because director Martin Scorsese was unwilling to idealize his subject. Yes, this resulted in a firestorm of controversy, but it was largely brought on by fundamentalists; more thoughtful viewers were able to see that, in spite of Jesus’ doubts and His last-minute vision of coming off the cross, renouncing His reputation as a spiritual leader, marrying Mary Magdalene, becoming a father, and growing old, He was able to resist all temptations and fulfill His destiny as humanity’s savior. Son of God shows no ambition to be daring or original. Jesus, here portrayed by Diogo Morgado, is depicted as a gilded antiquity, highly idealized, denied of anything that would inspire audiences to seriously contemplate His existence and the meaning behind His teachings.
The only point at which Jesus’ image is, to put it mildly, less than pristine is during His crucifixion. This is an admirable approach, because let’s face it, when your back is whipped, when a crown of thorns is forced onto your head, when you bear the brunt of a gigantic wooden cross, and when nails are driven through your hands and feet, you are going to be covered in your own blood. Having said that, there’s no escaping the fact that this sequence is tonally and structurally all too similar to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. It’s said that imitation is the highest form of flattery, and indeed, Gibson’s willingness to unflinchingly depict the magnitude of Jesus’ suffering set a new standard for any filmmakers looking to tell the same story. But because the two sequences are so much alike, I’m forced to wonder if this goes beyond mere imitation, if the filmmakers were aiming to remake the sequence as Gibson envisioned it.
The final act, as would be expected, focuses on Jesus’ resurrection. I was surprised at how condescending it was, not because of its brevity in relation to the rest of the film, but because the filmmakers pander to audience’s expectations by depicting the resurrected Jesus in much the same way He’s depicted on votive candles and stained-glass windows; He wears a plain white robe, His head is covered in neatly-styled locks of hair, and He’s bathed in brilliant, ethereal white light. Not even the holes in His hands, plainly visible when He reaches out to lovingly palm someone’s face, are enough to ruin His holy veneer. Perhaps it would have been better to once again copy Mel Gibson, ending the film with a single shot of Jesus rising from a kneeling position within His tomb, His original body having literally faded away.
Strange, how a movie called Son of God could be so pedestrian in its treatment of Jesus Christ and yet so interesting as a political drama. Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem is a threat to both the occupying Romans and the Jewish priests, for Jesus was a revolutionary with a following, and His new covenant was a threat to established traditions. We see a great many scenes with Pontius Pilate, the Roman General (Greg Hicks), and Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest (Adrian Schiller), and they were all so much more engaging. So maybe this isn’t about the film being extracted from a TV miniseries, or even about the way Jesus is depicted. Maybe this is about filmmakers having exhausted telling Jesus’ life story from His perspective, that it would have been a more original idea to tell it from the point of view of those who had the biggest parts to play in his crucifixion. That is, of course, just my opinion.
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20th Century Fox