As the new film Son of God debuts in movie theaters, it is just in time for Christians who are entering the season known as Lent. Lent is the time from Ash Wednesday through Easter Sunday when Christians are supposed to fast, repent, reflect, pray, and help those less fortunate. More importantly, the idea is to get closer to living like Jesus, who spent forty days in the desert to fast and pray. Needless to say, many Christians regard Lent in different ways, and some do not adhere to any marking of the time at all. One could say then that Son of God comes at an ideal time for discourse to continue about not only the season but the viability of another film about Jesus.
In terms of pure cinematic appreciation, Son of God probably falls somewhere in between the King of Kings (1961) directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Jeffrey Hunter as Christ and The Passion of the Christ (2004) Mel Gibson’s violent interpretation of the story starring Jim Caviezel as the bloody and battered Jesus. One could say it is a kinder, more gentle version of the story, but that would obfuscate the fact that the main character still dies on the cross in a very brutal way. Still, the story is slower (dare I say somewhat slogging) and many will find it less compelling than its predecessors.
Diogo Morgodo is the Portuguese actor who plays the title role, and it is directed by Christopher Spencer, who is known for his work on TV movies, mini-series, and documentaries, including The Bible mini-series upon which this film draws much of its material. Producer Mark Burnett and executive producer Roma Downey (his wife who also stars as Mary, mother of Jesus) have taken great pains at presenting a beautiful production, but sometimes a film of great beauty can lack substance and be weighed down too heavily, sinking under the heft of its florid cinematography.
There are those fervent believers who will absorb every second of this film and be moved through spirituality found in the story, and there will even be those Christians and non-Christians who enjoy it purely for its stunning visuals, but the story has been told in better ways before and, while the main actor provides a very handsome Jesus who is less Nordic in appearance than those who have come before (yet an obviously “European” person is playing the part), he still seems way too athletic and well groomed for a Jesus who lived off the land, fasted, and had little chance of access to a gym or shower stall.
As of now you may have heard of packed movie theaters filled with people who are giving enthusiastic thumbs ups to the film. Of course, as in all things, people are entitled to their opinions. Christians are no doubt very excited about this release, and Burnett and Downey have made the rounds on TV shows to promote the “good news” of the film and it seems to be working. How big will the box office be? That will be the thing that people (especially those Hollywood honchos) will be wanting to find out on Monday morning.
There are other films with a “religious” theme upcoming: Noah starring Russell Crowe and Exodus with Christian Bale stepping into Charlton Heston’s sandals as Moses. With the acting weight of those two highly regarded actors, perhaps those films will be critical successes, but as Mel Gibson proved with Passion, a film with a religious theme can enjoy a healthy box office without we film critics liking it.
As it stands Son of God looks and feels like the thing that spawned it – a TV series. It is, however, very beautiful to watch, as is Morgodo in the title role. There does seem to be something missing (and I’m not talking about the noted absence of the Satan character that critics have said looks uncomfortably like President Barack Obama), and that has to do with Spencer’s talents more tailored for television and the way the story unfolds. The film is reverent to the Jesus known to Christians through the Gospels, and there is nothing here that will insult those believers who want another Jesus story, but there is not enough to satisfy the regular movie-goer who wants to see a really fine film.
Personally, I am still a fan of Franco Zefferelli’s TV mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (1978), which can be easily found online. If you want to see absolutely the best version of the Jesus story (with actor Robert Powell making the role his own), you have no need to look elsewhere.
As to the question at hand – do we need another Jesus story – I guess that can best be answered by asking if we needed a new Robo Cop or another Batman or Super Man film? As long as the popcorn munching public fills the seats, the answer is a less than enthusiastic but resounding “Yes.”
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