Thursday, February 19, 2015

"Son of God" Missed the Mark

by Justin Soutar

One year ago, Hollywood film director Christopher Spencer and producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey saddled us with Son of God, a disappointingly banal and inaccurate feature presentation on the life of Jesus Christ. Based quite loosely on the biblical accounts of Christ’s life, death, and Resurrection, this 138-minute film offers a barely tolerable portrayal of most of the significant events while making mincemeat of the details. Although many Jesus films of the past century--out of reverence for Christ’s divinity--made him seem too distant, introverted and otherworldly, with Son of God the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme of presenting Christ as too ordinary, casual, and extroverted. Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado’s fresh and engaging portrayal of Christ as a warmly human, joyful and self-confident figure admittedly has some appeal, but this performance sacrifices historical accuracy and reverence for Christ’s divine dignity to on-screen likeability. Fidelity to the Gospel texts was obviously not a major concern of the filmmakers here; apparently, they were more afraid of making Christ appear trite or cliché. The result is a pathetically mediocre film that doesn’t hold a candle to the likes of Jesus of Nazareth (1977) or The Passion of the Christ (2004).

Focusing mainly on His public ministry and Passion, Son of God attempts to portray the life of Christ retrospectively through the eyes of an older Apostle John, living out his final years in exile on Patmos as he writes his famous Gospel and the Apocalypse (Revelation). As the film opens, we hear the stirring Prologue of Saint John’s Gospel (John 1:1-18), and as it concludes, we listen to the final words of the Apocalypse (22:6-21). The film’s title is a recurring theme throughout John’s Gospel, appearing six times in all (John 1:34, 3:18, 5:25, 11:27, 19:7, and 20:31); it’s also found in several places in the Synoptic Gospels. In the film, when Jesus asks His disciples who they think He is, Peter replies, “You are the Son of God” (cf. Matt. 16:16; Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20). Taken together, these texts and the theme that resonates through them form a solid theological foundation on which a truly great film could have been built.

As a major studio production distributed by 20th Century FOX, Son of God didn’t live up to the grand religious, historical, and artistic expectations its makers deliberately generated within its mass-market audience. The film is plagued by a variety of issues, chief of which is Morgado’s superficial performance that doesn’t accurately reflect the Jesus of the Gospels. Throughout most of the movie, Christ comes off as too breezy and carefree, too “hip” and trendy, his casual, laid-back attitude failing to reflect the seriousness of his divine mission to save fallen humanity. In the name of making the Person of Jesus more accessible to a contemporary audience, Morgado’s portrayal generally lacks true depth and spirit. Contrast this with Robert Powell’s magnificent performance in Jesus of Nazareth (1977), for example, which--despite some minor flaws and notable artistic liberties--is on the whole much more faithful to the biblical texts.

The tantalizing whirlwind of scenes at the beginning of the film allows the viewer only brief glimpses of Jesus’ nativity and His Baptism in the Jordan as Saint John flashes back to those two pivotal events; then we see the adult Jesus already beginning His public ministry. There is nothing whatsoever of the Annunciation to Mary, her visit to Elizabeth, Christ’s Circumcision, His Presentation in the Temple, or His parents’ discovery of Him in the Temple at the age of twelve. I would have liked to see a bit more of Jesus’ Birth and Baptism, as well as something of His conception and early life, if only for the sake of character and story development.

Christ’s three-year public ministry in Son of God also flashes by the viewer more quickly than expected. About a dozen fairly short scenes of the best-known events in Our Lord’s life—some from John’s Gospel and some from the other Gospels—are stitched together to achieve this undesirable effect; then all of a sudden, Jesus is triumphantly entering Jerusalem as the Messiah. With so much having been skipped altogether, the somewhat befuddled viewer is left with the impression that Our Lord’s public life has been significantly over-edited. For instance, there is nothing of the wedding at Cana, Christ’s discussion with the Samaritan woman, or His healing of the man born blind, all of which are recorded in John’s Gospel and certainly worthy of this type of film. (Scenes of Christ’s temptations were reportedly cut from the film because the actor for Satan looked too much like Barack Obama.)

 By contrast, the events of Holy Week, which collectively occupy as much or more on-screen time as the core of Jesus’ ministry, are drawn out and slow to unfold, albeit with insufficient emphasis on some of the key parts of the story. Judas and the high priests seem to take forever to get around to actually betraying and arresting Christ; Pilate’s wife’s prophetic dream occurs several days before Jesus’ arrest; Pilate threatens the Jews with stern measures should a revolt take place on the eve of Passover. But then, once they finally come, scenes of two important climactic events long anticipated by the viewer—the Last Supper and the Agony in the Garden—turn out to be disappointingly brief.

The novel presentation of Jesus’ life and ministry in Son of God is accomplished through excessive use of artistic license. In a few scenes, such as Jesus climbing into Peter’s boat and the calling of Matthew, this device arguably enhances the film. But as a rule, the wacky liberties taken clearly detract from the presentation: the paralytic comes crashing through the roof almost by himself; Christ ventures inside the tomb to bring Lazarus out; he foretells the destruction of the Temple with casual glee; he abruptly exits the Upper Room after the Last Supper, leaving His frightened disciples behind (we get barely a sentence or two of the beautiful Farewell Discourse that takes up several chapters of John’s Gospel). And in the name of freshness and relevance, the words coming out of Jesus’ mouth are typically a loose postmodern rendering of what the Gospels record. The obvious banality of this style is inconsistent with the true figure of Christ as handed down to us by biblical tradition.

Another drawback to this film is a somewhat inadequate movie set. The ubiquitous stark white background scenery leaves something to be desired, both from an artistic and a historical point of view. Most of the scenes, including the Sermon on the Mount and the feeding of the five thousand men plus women and children—both of which actually took place on the grassy shores of the Sea of Galilee—were filmed in a barren desert of rocky slopes and cliffs where hardly a smidgeon of greenery is to be found to relieve the sameness. A few palm trees are visible in one or two of the scenes, but the film cries out for a bit more of that color. Also, the special effects employed are not quite up to par, with the dark shots of Jerusalem in particular looking fake, which further detracts from the overall viewing experience.

Where Son of God actually comes close to excelling is in its portrayal of the Passion and death of Christ from His arrest to His crucifixion. This owes not so much to the genius of the filmmakers as to the overwhelming influence of Mel Gibson’s timeless masterpiece The Passion of the Christ, which set a new standard of historical accuracy for all subsequent film depictions of this world-changing event. However, the producers, director and cast of Son of God do deserve some credit for achieving a decent blend of realism, artistic license, and special effects in this portion of the film. Whereas the brutally graphic depiction of Our Lord’s sufferings in Gibson’s film demanded an R rating, Christ’s Passion in Son of God is a bit less intense to make the PG-13 grade. Nonetheless, the latter presentation is quite gripping and moving, closely following the biblical account in almost every detail, with the quality of Morgado’s performance resulting in a fairly memorable viewing experience—a notable exception to the rest of the film.

Obviously, the makers and marketers of Son of God already knew what Mel Gibson discovered ten years earlier: a large twenty-first century movie audience exists that is hungry for good religious fare. But whereas Gibson sacrificed and risked everything to make an all-time great film regardless of criticism, controversy, and potential failure—a film that actually became a record-breaking hit--Spencer and his crew appear to have aimed straight for popularity and box-office returns, paying lip service to religious and historical truth while eschewing the fine craftsmanship necessary to produce a work of enduring value. Their film didn’t qualify as good religious fare, so it didn’t satisfy the hunger of the movie audience. Its glaring lack of historical and biblical accuracy offends the sensibilities of Christian believers while offering a rather misleading depiction of Christ to potential believers. If the aim was to make a great, powerfully moving, and unforgettable Jesus film that tens of millions of people will enjoy for decades to come, Son of God definitely missed the mark. If you still haven’t seen this movie, don’t waste your time or money on it. You’re better off reading your Bible and sticking to older classic films on the life of Christ until the next truly great Jesus movie comes along.

Copyright © 2015 Justin D. Soutar. All rights reserved.

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