Faith and Film: Son of God

Last year, TV’s History Channel aired “The Bible,” a highly successful miniseries, produced by the team of Roma Downey (from “Touched by an Angel”) and her husband, Mark Burnett (“Survivor.”) The current film, “Son of God,” was originally shown as part of “The Bible,” with additional scenes added in order to flesh it out into a feature length movie.

Perhaps that’s why so much of “Son of God” feels like a cut and paste project. The first half of the film has little rhythm at all. It’s like a selection of scenes from the life of Jesus, in no particular order. For example, the raising of Lazarus occurs before Jesus takes the scroll and proclaims in the synagogue: “This passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” The film is narrated by John the Evangelist from his exile on Patmos. It’s challenging enough to try to fashion a film based on John’s Gospel, with its lack of narrative. So Downey and Burnett supplement “Son of God” with scenes from Matthew and Luke. In doing so, they omit some of the best passages of John (e.g. the footwashing.)

The dialogue is an odd blend of Biblical speech and modern jargon. It’s difficult to imagine Jesus inviting Peter to come with him, not only to be a “fisher of men,” but also to “change the world.” When the resurrected Jesus appears to Mary, he calls her by name, and then announces, “I’m here!” I groaned at this. The authenticity of the film is not helped by the English accents we hear from many of the characters, most notably Pilate. Did he come to Jerusalem after a tour of duty in Britain?

Director Christopher Spencer loves to do panoramic photos from above. The scenes of the small band of apostles walking in the harsh desert landscapes are impressive. However, when the camera focuses on the city of Jerusalem, the walls and buildings look too much like a scale model, reflecting the limited budget of a TV show, rather than a major movie.

Another interesting choice of the filmmakers was to include Mary Magdalene with the apostles almost from the beginning, without any explanation. No other women disciples follow Jesus, even though Martha is present at the raising of Lazarus. Knowing a little about ancient culture, it seemed very odd that a group of men, with one woman, would wander around Palestine with no one raising an eyebrow.

Downey and Burnett have chosen Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado to play Jesus. At times, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Brad Pitt. He’s a rather bland, smiling Jesus. It’s hard to imagine anyone following him.

Watching “Son of God” on the first weekend of Lent, I was aware of the absence of the temptation of Jesus. I understand that, in the series, Satan bore a resemblance to Barack Obama, which the producers claim was purely unintentional. So, for the big screen, in order to avoid controversy, the scenes with Satan were deleted.

I salute Downey and Burnett for this obvious labor of love for them, and for bringing the story of Jesus to a contemporary audience. I’m aware of the number of people today who know so little about Jesus. Even though it may please some Christians, it’s unfortunate that “Son of God” is not a strong enough film to appeal to a wider audience and win any new converts. I’d recommend that curious audiences seek out the far superior 1970s miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth,” directed by Franco Zeffirelli, which I still remember with great fondness.

Tom Condon, OP