Review: SON OF GOD Preaches To The Choir

The Bible tells us, "In the beginning was the Word." (John 1:1) "The Word," in this case, is understood to be Jesus Christ himself, who became "The Word made flesh" (John 1:14) for his time on Earth. If that's the case, then it's only fitting that Jesus has also been with filmmaking itself from its own beginning as a narrative art form. His story has certainly been one of the most filmed of all time. 

As early as 1902, France's Pathé company presented the first in a series of impressive (for the time) shorts depicting "The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ." From DeMille's silent era King of Kings (starring H.B. Warner in one of cinema's better Jesus performances) to Nicholas Ray's 1961 Hollywood epic of the same name (starring Jeffery Hunter in the title role), and beyond, it's become apparent that the movies are no exception to Jesus' final statement in the book of Matthew, "And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." Too bad, then, that the latest offering, Son of God from producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, feels like it may drag on just that long. 

With all due respect to the Bible, which I respect in abundance, it's films like this one that perpetuate the common notions of Christianity as something tired, boring, and insular. While the film eventually pulls itself together in time for its crucifixion sequence, that's not enough to elevate this expanded television episode beyond anything that only traditional Christian audiences -- typical non-filmgoers whom are content to see their story dramatized verbatim ad nauseam, and unlikely to venture cinematically beyond that -- will sit still for. 

In its better moments, there are signs that Son of God wants to break free from being yet another Bible study guide brought to life. But inevitably, an apparent fear and unwillingness to loosen the sacred sandals keeps it a largely lifeless endeavor. If only these filmmakers, in all their binding reverence, would, for example, let the characters speak dialogue that's still in keeping with the Good Book, if not verbatim, this world they've gone to such pains to depict would feel so much more authentic. The Gospels need not be boring, yet here they are again playing out as some kind of tired, recycled Sunday school lesson. 

And worse yet, computer generated Jerusalem looks foggy and half-rendered, and Portuguese born Diogo Morgado, in portraying Christ, gives a performance that is at once over-dramatic and fatally interior. While it's nice to see a movie Jesus smiling every now and then, Morgado seems lost in the part. And while believably portraying a character who's fundamentally both perfect-God and fragile-human is asking a lot of any actor -- indeed, the pantheon of performers having played Jesus is one of subsequently tragic lives and/or dwindled careers -- Morgado carries Christ's weight of the world with an unenthusiastic woe, delivering his scriptural dialogue like apologetic riddles. 

Of course, if Christian audiences do show up for Son of God, they'll likely have already reconciled these shortcomings. The 138-minute film is culled from footage both used and unused by the 10-hour History Channel mini-series, The Bible (which was amusingly accused of featuring an Obama-esque Satan), which aired on cable just last year. The Bible was tremendously well received as a TV event, and was promptly packaged to believers on DVD and Blu-ray. 

Why then, cobble the Christ episodes together for one more trip to the well? Besides the fact that it's been ten years since distributor 20th Century Fox saw The Passion of the Christ earn $370 million-plus at the box office, and are now moved to once again pass that plate around to the believing congregation? (This time playing it safe, without Mel Gibson, or even Obama-Satan?) 

Roma Downey in a scene from Son of God.JPG
But perhaps it's not fair to accuse Son of God of being a blatant cash grab. After all, this isn't the first time pre-existing footage intended for television has been re-sculpted into a theatrical release. We need to look no further than David Lynch's 2001 Mulholland Dr. - a film that now sits among Sight & Sound magazine's critics list of the Top 50 Films Ever made. 

Unfortunately, Son of God will find no such ranking. It shouldn't even be among the top "Jesus movies" ever made. On the whole, despite some decent supporting performances (Roma Downey shows up as Mary, mother of Jesus) it plays like glorified re-enactment footage intended for a History Channel documentary. Which isn't surprising, considering that its primary director is Christopher Spencer, who's made a long list of BBC and National Geographic documentaries (including "The Human Body" and "Stonehenge: Decoded"). Being made up of almost all close-ups and medium shots, this is strictly made-for-television fare. 

It may be a little hypocritical, then, that I consider Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 TV mini-series Jesus of Nazareth the uneasy standard bearer for cinematic treatments of the life of Christ. That film is probably my favorite, in large part because I grew up watching it every year, but also because it resonates. Robert Powell, as impossibly European as he is, might still be my favorite movie Jesus. (The U.K. version of The Bible apparently capitalized on this, as Powell served as narrator of the series in that country.) It has an amazing cast (anchored by scenery chewing Brits, including Peter Ustinov, Michael York, and Donald Pleasance), and an unforgettable musical score by Maurice Jarre. Although Jesus of Nazareth is another epic TV endeavor, there's a world of artistic difference between what Zeffirelli and Spencer bring to the material. 

OnCross.jpg
The second half of the film picks up both in terms of aesthetic visualization and emotional power as it offers a bloody effective rendering of the crucifixion. Being a lifelong Bible-believing, church-going Christian, I'll concede a certain personal vulnerability when it comes to my processing of even the most inept depictions of this most historic of events. It's always a struggle for one to discern the flaws in adapted material when the source material is deeply personal (heck, I get mad when they mess up Spider-Man!), but I think I can safely say that this prolonged sequence works as intended, even if filmgoers have seen umpteen crucifixion scenes before, and this one ultimately does blend right in. 

The problem is that Son of God's first half is so dully non-cinematic that editors at media outlets should rightfully grapple with whether to run coverage of the release among the weekly film reviews or in the Faith & Religion section. It ticks along bullet-pointing the famous highlights of Christ's ministry - miracles, confrontations, etc. - each one portraying Jesus as perpetually bathed in light, and culminating with a repetitive swell of the Hans Zimmer musical score. 

This is a positively sleep-inducing chronicle that lacks any narrative drive or personal engagement beyond whatever audience members bring in with them. It's said that husband and wife producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey have created The Bible mini-series and subsequently, Son of God, as evangelical tools intended to communicate their faith to the world. Sadly however, what we have here - whatever their intentions - is yet another Jesus movie that is merely preaching to the choir.


The film opens wide in theaters across North America on Friday, February 28. Visit the official site for more information
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  • I didn't think that this movie would amount to much. Consider me absent from this choir.

  • owen

    I'm curious is Christianity in the states different from the rest of the world because i'm catholic and science comes before religion i believe in evolution the possibility of alien life please be sexy alien chicks more than likely it will be friggin bacteria and i don't take the bible as 100% basically i'm saying i'm open minded not rigid

  • Heijoshin

    Owen, I don't know if the overall view and believes in Christianity as a whole are too different when you go from country to country but the views from sect to sect can get pretty different. I'm personally non-denominational and believe in what the Bible says. That doesn't leave any room for a particular sect's 'traditions'.

    However, while I do not believe in evolution, everything that I have come to understand from the Bible actually leaves a lot of room for science. In fact there is a lot of science in the Bible. Luke was a physician and he used a lot of medical terms in his writing and always clearly defined the instances where someone was struck with illness and was healed as opposed to someone being possessed by an evil spirit.

    Further more the Bible never really says that there are not aliens, not only that but when God visits Ezekiel, Ezekiel, in rudimentary terms, basically describes God and his Angel coming down out of the sky in a flying saucer type of ship. Either way, the important thing is that whether there is life on other planets or not, doesn't really have much to do with Christianity if you really think about it.

    Some Christians might get upset at the notion as they seem to think that it threatens their beliefs but I personally don't see how it changes anything. I think if there is other life, that that is just part of the story that we haven't been given because it doesn't pertain to us at the moment.

  • ricebowl88

    I just thought I'd comment on some of the points you made above.

    From what you've written so far while you claim to be non-denominational, as being Bible-only you're practically Protestant. Protestantism was founded in 1517 when Martin Luther split away from the Catholic Church, and all the Bible-only believers, whether they belong to a particular church or not, are essentially Protestants. Tradition is and has always been a part of Christian teaching, whether you think the Bible says it or not. It's not just one "particular sect's 'traditions'", by the way; Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Egyptian Coptics, Eastern rites, etc. (as well as all of Christianity before 1517) have it and are similar to those of the Roman Catholic Church's. I understand you may not be familiar with these as you've admitted yourself you're not a very traveled person and probably not familiar with the world and cultures outside the U.S.

    Also, the best version of the Bible is the one directly from the Latin Vulgate, as translated by St. Jerome in the 4th Century. St. Jerome was a linguistic scholar and was fluent in Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew, Old Latin, etc. and he started his work back in 382 A.D. The direct, faithful English translation of the Latin is the Douay-Rheims Bible. King James commissioned his people to translate into English his version, which was biased toward his Church of England and guaranteed to support his church's teachings. So it's hardly the impartial, let alone best, English version of the Bible.

    I agree with your notions about aliens, however. As a Christian, I believe God made the universe and everything in it, and that would of course include extra-terrestial lifeforms. Just because there are so many things one still doesn't know about or is being kept in the dark, it shouldn't affect or have any bearing on one's personal convictions.

    I also agree with Martin's post above with regards to the issues facing filmmakers making Christian-themed movies. Clearly they have to walk a fine line between pulling in converts and pleasing the believers. I think Burnett and Downey are doing fine in both respects with their handling of their film. Just yesterday at the local theater here I even saw Spanish-subtitled screenings. It looks like they're trying to cross over diverse demographic lines as well.

  • Heijoshin

    Thank you for your points and information. My statement regarding the King James Bible was that it was the best English version of the Bible. I should note that that of course is my opinion. I am not familiar with the English version that you refereed to and I'll make a note to look into it.

    I still maintain that The original languages are the best sources as, as with anything, the closer you get to the source the more pure it is.

    As far as tradition goes, traditions have of course always been a part of faith. My concerns lie in traditions that are not in the Bible but that are brought forth by man. I'm not saying they aren't there, I'm just saying that I don't support them.

    And the whole non-denominational thing; I suppose I really shouldn't have even used that word. I just wanted to be clear that I don't fit into one of the groups. I am simply a Christian. If I have to be labeled anything I will wear that label proudly. If you're saying I'm a Protestant I can't say that I agree with you but maybe you know better than I do.

  • ricebowl88

    Thanks for the reply. I wasn't sure if this thread was still active since it's been a few days since the last post.

    True, the original languages are the best source. Ideally, if we can all read and understand ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, etc. in their original forms we wouldn't need translated versions of the Scriptures. Unfortunately, this is not the case. I trust St. Jerome and his translations to Latin as he was not only a scholar of languages but also lived in the 4th Century and being close to the era, knew the linguistic and historical context of the time as it applied when they were written. Also, Latin is a dead language, meaning it doesn't change, so the meaning and nuances of the text would have been preserved as accurately as possible. This accuracy would then also carry over if it's used as a source when translated to English or any modern language today.

    The term Protestant is merely a description of a type of Christian, in the same way Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, etc. is. Outside the U.S. most Protestants call themselves by that term. In the end, of course, they're all Christians.

  • owen

    The reason i was asking was the some people not all but some especially on forums are very aggressive they seem to think if your Christian you must have an intellectual disability and this seems to be an american thing that they slap labels on you like if your a liberal your baby killing reptile mole person or if your a republican your a sexually repressed psychopath who likes to drown small puppies while lighting a cigar with 100 dollar bill

  • Heijoshin

    Now THAT attitude, as I am not a very traveled person, I really can't say is or isn't an American thing. I really don't know from personal experience, only what I read and see in movies.

    I will say that I have seen people that are like that in most all cultures as represented by the media. I think though that its a minority of the people rather than the majority. I believe the same is true here in the U.S. but the media focuses more on those type of people and even itself presents more that kind of attitude and seemingly promotes that type of thinking as well. So it just seems like everyone here is that way.

    And of course those types of people are in every facet of life whether it be politics, news, religion etc. I just watched a documentary on the white slums in South Africa and the effect that Affirmative Action is having on the current generation of people there.

    A lot of the attitudes and beliefs there that I saw when different types of people were interviewed all seemed to be the same types of beliefs and lines of thinking that I see here in the U.S. its just a different location with different circumstances. There is still that same label slapping, blind prejudice there just like there is here with all sides not really understanding the whole story when it come to others or willing to make progress that is beneficial for everyone. Prejudice is really an awful thing.

  • Mike

    That Jesus looks like he's about to go catch some righteous waves.

  • Heijoshin

    Well it's awfully late and I really should be going to bed but seeing as how this review was just posted and no one has had much of a chance to comment I think its a good opportunity for me to put forth my major gripe with Bible movies.

    Like the reviewer here I am a Christian myself though I am far removed form the usual Church going crowd. I have issue with the way that a majority of the Churches teach and find that most of what gets preached, when it actually pertains to the Bible and its continence specifically and not to the speaker's personal view (Minister, Preacher, Priest, etc.) or his 'message of the week', is done with little to no continuity and clarity.

    The reason that I bring this up is because the Bible itself is an extremely interesting book and there is so much in there that is glossed over, toned down, shied away from or completely misunderstood. I've found most Bible movies to barely go beyond a Sunday School level (or even a fourth grade level) of understanding and sometimes even wandering off into the perpetuation of things that Man has created that is not even in the Bible.

    Further more it seems that every time a non-Bible movie gets made that deals with the subject of Christianity in some aspect there is alway an even further devling into perpetuations of myths, fairy tales, and just plain untruths.

    The reviewer brought up a great point from the Bible miniseries. Satan is supposed to be the most beautiful being that God ever created. Why is he portrayed as such a wicked looking individual? It really makes no sense if you are trying to actually spread The Word.

    I just find it a little amazing that in all of these years, whether it be TV or Movies, that there has yet to be anything produced that really teaches God's word as it is with real understanding. This, I'm sure has largely to do with the people that are actually producing the works themselves for any number of various reasons. Its just a little strange I think that no one has come forward and produced something completely accurate.

    I'm sure that some people here will disagree with my post be they Christian or not. I'd appreciate it if we could skip any Bible events not being real comments as they really aren't necessary but you beliefs are your own and we all have a right to express our opinion. However, I will go ahead and say that I will not get into an argument about the validity of the Bible in this comment section. I am here to talk about the lack of quality media regarding the subject and the perpetuation of things that are simply either not in the book, misunderstood, or glossed over for other reasons.

  • Martin Wagner

    I think most of the problems you cite come from the fact that Christian filmmakers treat Biblical movies as proselytizing/recruiting tools first, and works of cinematic art adapted from a work of literature second. Burnett and Downey have come right out and said they're trying to win converts. Cinematically, the result is always going to be an overly sincere and reverent propaganda film whose fill-those-pews motivations are blatantly obvious to anyone not already part of the fold. It's hard to get swept up in the message and artistry of a story when someone's trying to hard-sell you something.

    But then, Christian filmmakers find themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Dare they make an artistically adventurous movie with a little bit of edge, which might interest non-Christians, and in so doing, alienate and anger the Christian base? Christian audiences notoriously tolerate no deviation at all from what they consider scriptural accuracy. Darren Aronofsky is taking his fair share of creative liberties in his version of NOAH, and Christians have been freaking out over that worse than Tolkien fans have been complaining about Peter Jackson's inflation of THE HOBBIT.

  • Heijoshin

    I agree that what you are saying is likely issues facing filmmakers. And that all makes sense if you look at it from the prospective of either making money or 'filling the pews'. So that part is no real mystery to me.

    What is the mystery to me is this. What good is it spreading the Word or winning conversions if you are not actually telling the whole story. I myself often find myself caught between a rock and a hard place as a lot of non-believers would rather not have a two way conversation about Christianity and at the same time a lot of Christians are not interested in a deeper study of the Bible and are automatically not willing to have the same conversation either when you bring up something that they have never heard of before.

    I have a hard time seeing why at least one person hasn't came along and made a film that follows the Bible as it is written. It just seems that someone would have even if it was a privately financed film. I really believe that the real way to win people the Christianity is by telling them the truth and following, teaching and reading from the Bible chapter by chapter, verse by verse. Its interesting enough as it is and it was put together the way that it was for a reason. And if you believe in really spreading the Word as it is intended then you wouldn't be worried about who you might upset by speaking the truth. You wouldn't be worried about making money either because God would bless your project. That IS what you SHOULD believe.

    A great example I think it the subject of Revelation. There have bee a slew of movies about the Anti-Christ and and handful of movies about Rapture. Putting Rapture aside, as that is not a Biblical thing but rather a theory, lets look at the Anti-Christ. Movies have always portrayed Anti-Christ as an extremely evil person that is born, rises to power and sets out to try to do whatever it is that he intends to do based on the movie's premise.

    The Book of Revelations clearly stats that the Anti-Christ is Satan who descends to the Earth, from Heaven where he has been loosed from bondage, with all of the power and beauty that he posses. It says that he will just come down right out of the sky and start performing miracles and wonders right there for everyone to see.

    A lot of Atheists I know state that they have issue with believing because they have never seen a miracle performed. They've asked for signs and wondered why God would not show his power, not understanding that we live in a time where Faith IS Christianity.

    So this handsome, magnificent being appears and can do wonders that would make even the best magician look like a cheap opening act at some run down club. He declares that he is Christ, come to Earth to finally rule over us and take care of our every need if we only believe in and follow him. Is it any wonder that people that think that the Anti-Christ is something else or that Satan looks evil or monstrous or that people that have been living their lives longing for something that they can actually see so that they can start believing to all flock to him? Who would go against him ruling the world? Well of course only those who have bothered to learn the Word as it is actually written.

    So if you are a learned Christian and you are looking to make a movie, why wouldn't you make that one? I think that that is one of the most important messages that you could actually get out there. Of course there is a lot more to it and while Revelations can be particularly difficult to understand without a good teacher it is a really interesting Book. There are a lot of Book, just like that, all sitting there in the Bible, with really important information that no one is bothering to try to put out there in that format.

    This is actually running way longer than I intended to post here but I'm not going to hit the delete key now that I've typed it up. Again, I'm not here to argue about whether the Bible is true or not but I am definitely willing to talk about its misrepresentation in TV and Movies.

  • Martin Wagner

    I think a wholly faithful cinematic adaptation of the Bible would do more to send people running screaming from Christianity than anything else. If Lot getting drunk and having sex with his daughters weren't enough of a turnoff, whoever was still in the theaters would surely walk out when the movie got to that bit with the bears in II Kings 2.

  • Ard Vijn

    I'd go see that Anti-Christ movie you describe. That sounds like a very interesting take on faith versus miracles, a subject definitely worth exploring for believers and non-believers alike.

    As for your question why nobody makes a movie about the Word as it is actually written, there are several difficulties with trying such an approach. You cannot adapt the Word without interpretation of some sort. Written language by its very nature always requires interpretation from the reader, so I'd even have trouble discerning what IS the Word as it is actually written (which Bible, which language). The New Testament of the Christian Bible contains four Gospels, and even between those you can endlessly bicker on the interpretation of certain sayings, certain meanings. And should you completely disregard the apocryphal Gospels? If so, which ones, which not?

    The interpretation of Revelations is a particularly sticky issue, especially if it has been written by the same John who wrote the Gospel of John, and who so often contradicts the Gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew on many other subjects. And yes, I agree with you that there seems to be no end to the nonsense people tend to base on Revelations, treating it almost as a science fiction template rather than a religious Book.

  • Heijoshin

    A lot of the more modern versions of the Bible have been the cause of confusion. Every time a new one comes out little details are changed here and there to make it 'make more sense' or 'easier to understand'.

    For the best understanding you really have to go back to the Hebrew, Aramaic, etc. The Greek also has a fairly good, proper, translation. The best and only good English version is the original version of the King James Bible.

    I, personally, had always been a bit confused about a lot of things in the Bible until I found a teacher that taught based on the original languages. We've all heard the term 'Lost in translation' before. Lots of us that have learned some other languages will know that sometimes, in other languages, just like in English, there are words that are more than just what one word can explain. Its an idea that contains deeper or maybe multiple meanings depending on the way its used. I really had to watch a lot of Chinese language movies before some of the stuff that showed up in the subtitles started to make complete sense. I have to learn the significance of some words by watching the context of the visual story telling since I didn't speak Chinese or know anyone who did.

    Learning and studying based on the original materials or the absolute closest counterparts are absolutely the best way to go. After all, no one is making new discoveries in Christianity, it was all revealed to us already. We only move further and further away from understanding as the years pass and the word moves further away from God.

    All that aside though I'm very glad that the discussion hasn't degenerated into some kind of a mess. Its just very nice to see based on what I normally run into in discussions of religion on the internet.

  • Ard Vijn

    I agree that there is a lot of material in the bible which would make for some very interesting moral soul-searching, when adapted skillfully. Unfortunately, most of the cinematic efforts refuse to play it anything but safe, a few worthwhile exceptions noted.

    As for being "accurate" or "truthful", those are always tricky conditions when discussing adaptations of any kind, and especially when interpreting a religious source. Still, I share your concern regarding willful misinterpretations.

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