The producers behind Son of God are attempting something that hasn’t been tried for years, even decades — and I’m not just referring to the fact that their film is an explicitly Christian adaptation of the Gospels that is getting a wide release from a major distributor.
Son of God is adapted from the History Channel miniseries The Bible, which got huge ratings last year and has since become one of the bestselling TV-based DVDs ever — so this film may mark the first time since the rise of home video that filmmakers have repackaged a TV show for the big screen and asked an audience to pay to see it all over again.
Son of God does include a few minutes of new footage, and it moves some scenes around, but those who have already seen the miniseries will find the film feels pretty familiar. If anything, one of the most striking things about this film is what it leaves out.
The film is narrated by John the Apostle (Sebastian Knapp), who is first seen living in exile on the island of Patmos, many years after the events of the Gospels. After a brief Nativity sequence, the film jumps straight to the ministry of Jesus (Diogo Morgado), and in doing so, it skips right over his baptism — despite the fact that his baptism is an incredibly significant moment in Jesus’ life, reflected in all four Gospels.
But then, about halfway through the film, a Pharisee taunts Jesus by telling him that Herod has killed John the Baptist (Daniel Percival) — and this, in turn, prompts a flashback or two, as Jesus remembers being baptized and tells his disciples that John was the greatest prophet who ever lived.
Since the film never even mentions John before this scene, viewers who are not already familiar with the Gospels may wonder what exactly is going on there.
To be fair, though, some of the screenwriting choices are rather clever, even brilliant.
The Nativity sequence itself is placed in the midst of a voice-over taken from the prologue to John’s Gospel, so when John declares, "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us," his narration plays quite powerfully over the scene of Mary (Leila Mimmack) giving birth and Joseph (Joe Coen) holding the newborn infant.
Other creative uses of the source material include the scene in which Jesus calls Matthew (Said Bey) to be his disciple by telling the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector and the sequence in which Nicodemus (Simon Kunz) visits Jesus at the very same time that Judas (Joe Wredden) visits the high priest, as if to suggest that Nicodemus, by becoming one of Jesus’ followers, is thereby "betraying" the Sanhedrin, just as Judas is betraying Jesus.
But, at times, you can tell that the decision to turn this footage into a feature film was made well after the miniseries had already been shot. If the film is being narrated from John’s point of view, then you might expect him to be present, as he is in the Bible, for scenes like the one in which Jesus gives Peter (Darwin Shaw) the miraculous catch of fish. But, instead, he is absent, and that entire scene plays out between Jesus and Peter alone.
Incidentally, that scene is just one of several that, when seen on the big screen, really give you a sense of how small this movie is.
You can get away with certain things on TV when you have a low budget, but while watching Son of God at the multiplex, one cannot help but think that some of the crowd scenes are a tad underpopulated or that the establishing shots of Jerusalem look very much like they were based on miniature models.
On the other hand, the big screen really does enhance certain scenes, like the one where Jesus walks on water. The disciples think he’s a ghost at first, and, seeing his life-size image in a darkened screening room, there really is something almost haunting about him.
The film is a mixed bag in other ways, too. At times, the script, credited to director Christopher Spencer and three other writers, displays a welcome sensitivity to the issues at play. But at other times, it misreads them so badly it gets downright goofy.
On the sensitive side, the film avoids some of the controversy that plagued The Passion of the Christ by offering a much more balanced view of Jewish-Roman politics.
For one thing, it clearly depicts Pontius Pilate (Greg Hicks) as the brutal governor that he was (Luke 13:1), even going so far as to show him violently putting down a protest over his misuse of the Temple’s funds (an episode taken from the secular historian Josephus).
It also underscores the fact that the high priest, Caiaphas (Adrian Schiller), was motivated not just by religious concerns, but by a realpolitik desire to keep Israel safe from the Romans, even if it meant sacrificing individual Jews (John 11:47-50).
But on the goofy side, the film utterly botches the scene in which Jesus declares that not one of the Temple’s stones will be left standing. In the Gospels, this statement has dark, apocalyptic overtones, but in the film, Jesus says it for no particular reason, and he smiles and pokes the belly of some random child while doing so. Would the real Jesus have grinned so happily when predicting the destruction of Jerusalem? Doubtful, to say the least.
The film benefits from fine supporting turns by the actors who play the key followers of Jesus; I was especially struck by Amber Rose Revah’s Mary Magdalene and the ferocity with which she tells the people mocking Jesus at his crucifixion to "leave him" alone. Roma Downey, who produced the film with her husband, Mark Burnett, also appears as the older Virgin Mary (and in her first scene, she even hums a bit of the Hans Zimmer score).
The part of Jesus himself, however, is less persuasive. As played by Morgado, a Portuguese actor surrounded by Brits (the sort of exotic casting that put Max von Sydow, a Swede, at the center of an otherwise American cast in The Greatest Story Ever Told), this Jesus lacks a certain authority and often seems overwhelmed by his emotions. He is even caught off guard when, at the Last Supper, he suddenly has a premonition of his own death.
But what really undermines the portrayal is the banal, anachronistic dialogue he is given at certain key moments, like when he tells Peter, "Just give me an hour, and I’ll give you a whole new life," before going on to say that, together, they will "change the world."
The problem is: You’re never entirely sure what they’re going to change the world for. There is a fair bit of talk about the "message" of Jesus and the "work" that the disciples will have to do once he’s gone, but the film is vague on the specifics.
Son of God works as a pop illustration of certain Bible stories, but it’s not exactly life-changing in and of itself.
Peter T. Chattaway is a freelance film critic and blogs about film at FilmChat.
Caveat Spectator: Some PG-13 violence, some of it related to the Passion and some of it committed by Pilate and his soldiers against the Jewish crowds.