Diogo Morgado in a scene from "Son of God."
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Is it possible to love Jesus and not like Son of God?
That's the slightly discomfiting question some viewers might face upon seeing the feature film, presented by producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett as a condensed form of their 2013 History Channel miniseries, The Bible.
Such bold repurposing (and monetizing) of their property might strike some observers as the ultimate in — pardon the expression — chutzpah. But Son of God is nothing if not sincere, its earnest retelling of Jesus' life story resembling a gentle, pop-up book version of the New Testament, its text reenacted for maximum reassurance and intellectual ease. After a brief scene at the manger, the film focuses on his teachings as an adult, a series of tableaux that, in their perfunctory pacing and diorama-like staging, play like the Messiah's greatest hits. Those loaves and fishes? They're here. Casting the first stone? Yep. Lazarus? You bet. At a recent screening, a viewer could be heard murmuring along to the familiar gospels, like a Baby Boomer mouthing lyrics at a Dylan concert. ("Do your early stuff!")
Enough snark. It's easy to take pot shots at Son of God, which hasn't been directed as much as cobbled together by Bible veteran Christopher Spencer. The visual effects are often cheesy, the dialogue leaden, the melodramatic emotionalism continually snuffing out the possibility of authentic emotion. To its credit, the film places Jesus firmly within his historical context of oppression at the hands of Roman authorities in first-century Palestine, where Jewish leaders desperately tried to preserve their fragile kingdom by placating and politicking. Downey and Burnett take pains to identify Jesus as a Jew, his disciples intoning Hebrew prayers over his battered body after the crucifixion.
Directed by Christopher Spencer.
Written by Richard Bedser and Spencer.
A 20th Century Fox release, playing at Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons.
Rated PG-13 for a depiction of crucifixion and for violence.
Running time: 138 minutes.
Critic’s rating: ★★
In other words, there's nothing to give the slightest offense in Son of God, which is at its modest best when it's focusing on palace intrigue in Jerusalem between Roman governor Pontius Pilate (a scowling Greg Hicks) and high priest Caiaphas (a sour Adrian Schiller). As for Jesus himself, the Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado is all beachy waves and beatific smiles, his teeth an impeccable white even when covered in blood.
And there's a lot of blood in Son of God, as well as swordplay, especially at the hands of sadistic Roman soldiers. There's a lot of crying too, especially from Downey herself, who plays Jesus' mother, Mary. As the Passion hews to its inevitable narrative, more than a few audience members might find themselves reflexively humming tunes from Jesus Christ Superstar, the 1970s musical that, for all of its own sometimes inadvertent campiness, can now be appreciated for creating moments of genuine feeling in its music, metaphors, and imaginative staging.
Son of God, on the other hand, continually falls prey to starchy, even sophomoric literalism, with Jesus' teachings sounding like carefully rehearsed speeches and his miracles coming off like magic stunts.
Its narrative is too simplistic, its drama too inert for Son of God to be taken seriously as art; as iconography. But Downey and Burnett clearly mean for their film to make an impact not as an aesthetic experience, but as a spiritual one.