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Published: Friday, 2/28/2014

CULTURE SHOCK

Hollywood’s cash grab on Christ

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Unlike its title character, Son of God is far from perfect.

The latest onscreen incarnation of Jesus is a greatest-hits collection of the Gospels, with his familiar sermons and actions heavily condensed throughout.

As Jesus, Diogo Morgado is second only to the doubting Disciple, Thomas (Matthew Gravelle, complete with buzz-cut), as the palest man in the sea of swarthy Jews and fair-skinned Romans. Jesus smiles. Offers wisdom. Smiles some more. Heals the sick and rebukes his detractors. And smiles again.

But who wouldn’t be smiling if he had a $30 million film made about his life, death, and resurrection that is expected to gross up to $30 million its opening weekend?

While Son of God almost certainly won’t match the record-setting box-office run of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which earned $612 million worldwide in 2004, it also doesn’t require much in the way of audience marketing. Word-of-mouth and pulpit publicity will make Son of God a profitable venture.

Given the built-in Christian audience for a Jesus-based film, it’s cynical to call this a cash grab, but how else to account for a theatrical spin-off of a network miniseries from executive producer and “godfather” of reality television, Mark Burnett? After all, this is a film with Burnett’s wife, Roma Downey of Touched by an Angel fame, in the role of Mary, mother of Jesus.

While Son of God is geared toward believers, the truth is that such a vanilla effort — assembled largely from outtakes and extra scenes shot for the hit miniseries The Bible — sells this substantial audience short.

There is a rich history of Christ in cinema, beginning in 1905 with the French silent film Life and Passion of Jesus Christ and Cecil B. Demille’s The King of Kings in 1927, and Son of God adds nothing to the legacy.

Jeffrey Hunter, later cast as the original captain on the USS Enterprise, Christopher Pike, in the Star Trek pilot, made for a striking Jesus in 1961’s King of Kings, while Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini interpreted Christ as a Marxist revolutionary in 1964’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew. There was the all-star cast of 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told featuring Max von Sydow as Jesus and John Wayne as a Roman Centurian who delivers the line “Surely this man was the Son of God” with all the passion expected of an aging celebrity with a small role in a major film.

There were the musicals Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973, as well as Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus, co-written and narrated by Johnny Cash, who also performs a number of original songs. In addition to a black-clad Cash, the film also June Carter Cash as Mary Magdalene and Robert Elfstrom, looking very much like Brian Wilson in his Beach Boys heyday, as Jesus.

And whether you agree or were insulted by Monty Python’s religious spoof Life of Brian in 1979 and Martin Scorsese’s revisionist The Last Temptation of Christ released nearly a decade later, these controversial films prompted discussion and debate — some of it thoughtful, some of it not.

At the very least, these films about the life and times of Jesus challenged conventional thought and/or offered passionate viewpoints.

Son of God does none of that. It’s more like the warmed-over Big Mac you eat in a moment of intense hunger when nothing else is available. It serves its purpose, but it’s neither good nor good for you. And if you’ve read Revelation 3:15-16, you know what Christ says about the lukewarm: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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