Film Review: ‘Son of God’

Son of God

A stiff, earnest, clunkily edited feature-length account of Jesus' life culled from History's miniseries 'The Bible.'

With Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” and Ridley Scott’s “Exodus” preparing to duke it out for Old Testament auteur supremacy, Hollywood’s religious renaissance gets off to a none-too-spectacular start with a chewed-over New Testament appetizer called “Son of God.” A clumsily edited feature-length version of five episodes from History’s hugely popular 10-hour miniseries “The Bible,” this stiff, earnest production plays like a half-hearted throwback to the British-accented biblical dramas of yesteryear, its smallscreen genesis all too apparent in its Swiss-cheese construction and subpar production values. Yet while Jesus’ teachings have been reduced to a muddle of kindly gestures and mangled Scriptures, the scenes of his betrayal, death and resurrection crucially retain their emotional and dramatic power, which the charitable viewer may deem atonement enough for what feels, in all other respects, like a cynical cash grab.

As the first quasi-bigscreen account of the life of Jesus in the decade since Mel Gibson’s far more contentious “The Passion of the Christ,” “Son of God” should capitalize sufficiently on church-based word of mouth to intrigue if not galvanize Christian moviegoers, provided they haven’t already seen its longer original incarnation and/or know what they’re in for. Although some scholars have taken issue with the series’ deviations from the Bible (each episode was prefaced with the note that “it endeavors to stay true to the spirit of the book”), the Fox release arrives in theaters bearing pre-packaged endorsements by such prominent spiritual leaders as Rick Warren, T.D. Jakes and Sam Rodriguez — some of whom served as advisers to the TV project spearheaded by husband-and-wife exec producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (who retain their producing credits here, as does co-writer Richard Bedser).

“In the beginning was the Word,” the gospel writer John (Sebastian Knapp) intones early on, his revelation in the miniseries having been repurposed as a framing device here. From there the film plunges into a clumsy Old Testament highlights reel, a marketing tie-in for “The Bible” that gives viewers just enough time to wave to Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and some God-awful CGI before depositing them at the scene of the Christ child’s birth.

Gone are the formative elements of Jesus’ upbringing and his temptation in the wilderness, reportedly due to complaints that Satan (as played in the miniseries by actor Mehdi Ouazzani) bore a suspicious resemblance to President Obama. The story proper begins as Jesus (handsome, sleepy-eyed Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado) calls forth his disciples at the Sea of Galilee and begins his compassionate ministry of teaching, healing and prayer — a three-year endeavor rendered onscreen with all the heft and penetration of a poorly annotated Wikipedia entry, as the filmmakers race to condense some 200-odd minutes of pre-existing material (along with some minimal new footage) into a 138-minute frame.

And so, in fairly rapid succession, Jesus restores a paralytic, feeds the 5,000, and walks on water in a stormy sequence that suggests a relic from the Cecil B. DeMille era. In this abbreviated, arbitrary approach to biblical interpretation, the greatest story ever told becomes a checklist of miracles, and Jesus’ words and deeds, far from carrying the shock of radical epiphany, feel obvious and preordained. Time, or at least running time, is clearly of the essence: Miracles and lessons are expediently juxtaposed, and the Sermon on the Mount plays more like the Sermon on the Montage. Although he occasionally pauses to speak in parables, this Jesus is not above getting right to the point for the benefit of a busy 21st-century audience. (Why bother with “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” when a simple “Put God first and then everything will follow” will suffice?)

Elsewhere, schlock aesthetics prevail: When the sneering Pharisees attempt — and fail — to condemn a woman caught in the act of adultery, their stones fall to the ground in slow-motion, each one landing with a Dolby-amplified thud. While we are clearly a long way from the raw austerity of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s masterpiece “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” or the rigorous integrity of Philip Saville’s word-for-word 2003 adaptation of “The Gospel of John,” a cinematic adaptation of Scripture nonetheless demands style, poetry, vision or, barring that, a point of view — none of which seems to have been part of the assignment handed to directors Christopher Spencer (who helmed the three episodes from which the pic is chiefly drawn), Tony Mitchell and Crispin Reece.

The film’s four credited scribes are on surer footing once Jesus arrives in Jerusalem: Considerable time is spent teasing out the tense, symbiotic relationship between the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate (Greg Hicks) and the Jewish high priest Caiaphas (Adrian Schiller), who find themselves in a fascinating political pressure cooker as the “false prophet” from Nazareth threatens to overturn the social order. Notably, the film’s relatively thoughtful depiction of the Jewish authorities has received the approval of the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman, who pronounced it “the antidote to the poison that ‘The Passion of the Christ’ became.”

Whether that’s true or not, this film’s rendition of the crucifixion works in a similar fashion, managing to be properly, realistically violent without even remotely approaching Gibson’s pornographic bloodlust. Mercifully, we at least have a flawed but adequate narrative context for Jesus’ martyrdom, and for believers in the audience, it’s during Jesus’ long, despairing walk to Golgotha that “Son of God” will certainly prove most emotionally effective. But it’s a response that owes more to the enduring spiritual and symbolic power of the events in question than to any particular skill with which they have been dramatized here.

Leading an international hodgepodge of an ensemble, Morgado makes a hunkier Jesus than necessary but nonetheless gives an effectively gentle-souled performance that emphasizes the Messiah’s compassion above his authority. Her conspicuously light complexion aside, Downey is touching as Jesus’ mother Mary, and British thesps Hicks and Schiller etch complex portraits of misguided rather than malicious villainy. Among Jesus’ disciples, Shaw makes the boldest impression as that strong-willed fisher of men, Peter.

Blowing up the Morocco-lensed production on the bigscreen does Rob Goldie’s flat, serviceable lensing few favors; the frequent, fuzzy establishing shots of Jerusalem look especially phony and tacked-on. Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe’s poundingly unsubtle score sounds better suited to a superhero movie — and not this kind.

Film Review: 'Son of God'

Reviewed at Fox Studios, Century City, Calif., Feb. 25, 2014. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 138 MIN.

Production

A 20th Century Fox release presented with Lightworkers Media. Produced by Roma Downey, Mark Burnett, Richard Bedser. Co-producers, Alexander Marengo, Annie Macnee.

Crew

Directed by Christopher Spencer. Additional scenes directed by Tony Mitchell, Crispin Reece. Screenplay, Nic Young, Richard Bedser, Spencer, Colin Swash. Camera (color, widescreen), Rob Goldie; editor, Rob Hall; music, Hans Zimmer, Lorne Balfe; production designer, Alan Spalding; art directors, Hauke Richter, Said El Kounti; set decorators, Claudia Parker, Rachid Quiat; costume designer, Ros Little; sound (Dolby Digital), Doug Dreger, Jon Thomas, Judi Lee-Headman, Mitchell Low; re-recording mixers, Dan Johnson, Scott Jones, Nigel Squibbs, George Foulgham; special effects supervisor, Hassan Tib; visual effects supervisor, James Jordon; visual effects producer, Michelle Martin; visual effects, Lola Post Prod.; stunt coordinator, Joel Proust; line producer, Eamon Fitzpatrick; associate producers, Charlotte Wheaton, Khadija Alami; assistant directors, Grantly Butters, Noureddine Aberdine; casting, Carl Proctor (U.K.), Aberdine (Morocco).

With

Diogo Morgado, Greg Hicks, Adrian Schiller, Darwin Shaw, Sebastian Knapp, Joe Wredden, Simon Kunz, Paul Marc Davis, Matthew Gravelle, Amber Rose Revah, Roma Downey, Leila Mimmack. (English, Hebrew dialogue)

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  1. blah says:

    ….And God said, “Let there be paragraph breaks!” And it was so. Yet 1blessedmommy seems to have not read the memo.

  2. Heather says:

    Personally, I liked the movie. I also liked the Passion of Christ as well. I think the “pornographic bloodlust” as you called it, was right on cue as to how the Bible describes the lashings and cruelty that was shown upon Jesus. It comes to me that this is a loved movie by most of all who watch it. While watching the Difference with pastor Matthew Hagee, he interviews Mark Burnett who explains that the reason for not going into great detail is to capture the audience’s attention and have them drawn to want to learn more and take them back to the Bible itself so that they can become more aware and with all the details that were missing from the movie itself. As you would do with a Kindergartener, you start out simple and work your way up. Not indicating this as a simpleton type of film but keeping the verbiage understandable and getting to the point more so on a universal level so there is clarity. those are again my thoughts and understanding of the movie, it was a great film, one in which I have watched more than once. Learning of the Lord and all he has done for humanity is a wonderful thing. I think if more people put God first, than this would be a much better place to live. And you are right the Devil they casted did strike an uncanny resemblance to Obama, however, I don’t think that was done to represent him as Satan, although in the same respect, I think he has done more harm than good to this country and for the life of me cant figure out why he was re-elected. But since this is not a political debate, I will stop right there and wish you all a blessed night.

    • michael says:

      Since the Republican party has caused all the problems this country is facing – from blocking the President’s job bills, to creating laws controlling your vagina – why are you blaming Obama? He hasnt come for your guns has he?

      • Heather says:

        I didn’t blame Obama for a thing. Since this isn’t a political debate, don’t make it one

      • Holly Word says:

        Michael, this is about a film review, this page is not for discussing about politics, the demoncrat or the repubican party. Both parties are in synonymous term–they are not for the People.

  3. cadavra says:

    So about 1/3 of a TV miniseries that everyone watched for free is now playing in theatres for $12 or $14. To quote Homer Simpson in a similar situation, “Everyone in this theatre is a big sucker–especially YOU!!” :-)

    • Holly Word says:

      I am willing to pay $12 to $20 buck to watch a wholesome movies than “The Simpson,” anytime. You people paying $12 to $14 buck to watch a bunch of idiots speak nothing but foul language, and watch sexual and murdering scenes. Garbage in and garbage out. What you watch determine what type of class you are. Your response will not be read. So save your time. I get to say the last word. Not you nuckle head.

  4. TommyFlorida says:

    I’m usually critical off Mr. Chang’s take on movies but feel this SON OF GOD review is excellent. I’ve not seen the film although plan to – eager to see the Foxman approved “kinder, gentler” Jews. Anyone who has spent time down in Miami’s Jewish controlled diamond district will think different. And of course we have the expected race-baiters posting about the “white, European” Jesus. Really? Left wing ignorance abounds. Suprisingly excellent review by Mr. Chang, enjoyed it.

    • michael says:

      Your Christ was a Middle-eastern Jew. Explain why he looks like a blue-eyed, white European.

      • Greg Tracy says:

        @ Michael: I always took it to mean that he looks more like His Father. :) Don’t think on it too long though. I wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself.

      • michael says:

        Sorry, but I really dont believe in fairy tales written by a bunch of bronze age goatherders. Now if Christ was born in the middle east, why doesnt he look the part?

      • Heather says:

        Really? “your Christ” well as long as he’s ours we will make him what ever color we desire, in the end that isn’t what matters, Judging by your statement of “your Christ” you obviously haven’t really given him a chance yet. Instead of feeling the need to be so judgmental of people who have made it further in life than yourself possibly try to look to the bright side, learn a bit more of our Christ so that he can be your Christ. It really cracks me up when ppl say “your God” or “your Jesus” or in your case “your Christ” and say things as if they know the deal. If a person really knew about God and Jesus there would be nothing to argue or complain about, and they surely wouldn’t question such juvenile things as “why is he white with blue eyes” if that is your argument… you really need to get out more.

  5. Bill says:

    “Pornographic bloodlust?”

    Gibson’s Passion was the first film to portray what Jesus actually went through rather than Hollywood’s general reliance on blood spewing everywhere.

  6. I’m fascinated to learn this is just a screening of portions of the miniseries. Traditionally a strategy like this hasn’t meant box office gold. Then again, the production has already been monetized so they can probably turn a decent profit.

  7. tONY says:

    How often people look at the tech aspects of a faith based film ( awful term ) and COMPLETELY miss the message…

  8. tONY says:

    Sometimes it’s ok NOT to be so Hollywood…especially for those who don’t believe or understand…

  9. tamagura says:

    This reviewer is not just critical of the film “Son of God”. He is, downright, vicious. Social media has made many people extremely hostile, so they do not ‘bite’ their tongues at all. Mr. Chang, just remember that “God does not like ugly” and it could come back to bite you in the rear end. (It’s also called Karma.)

  10. Chris Lucas says:

    I love Biblical comedies. Sounds as funny as Monty Python and Mel Brooks’ versions.

  11. Daniel Kane says:

    Or, maybe, this reviewer is the cynical one, and the filmmakers were trying to produce an honest account, with little money to do it with. In comparison with the two directors he mentions.

    • blah says:

      Then, out of the generosity of their hearts, the producers should see to it that admission is free.

    • michael says:

      An honest account? With a white, european Jesus??

      • michael says:

        heather, you’re right. with a fictional character it doernt matter what color they are.

    • tamagura says:

      I agree, wholeheartedly.

      • Heather says:

        Don’t twist my words, I didn’t say Jesus was fictional. I believe in him whole heartedly. But to create a crisis of someone’s skin or eye color simply bc you have nothing against the movie and ppl just wanna nick pick-that’s ridiculous

      • Holly Word says:

        Anyone who cares so much about the color of Jesus is racist. God is God, color donesn’t matter. Jews are the apple of God’s eye. I don’t care if he is Asian, Black, White or Yellow, if He is God and He died for my sin, that’s the God I will worship and follow. I see no color.

      • Heather says:

        who cares if he is white, black, yellow, red or purple with yellow spots? I am a Christian, Jesus is Jewish, But have any of you seen him? I am white, God said, “let us go down and make men in our image and our likeness” just because his skin isn’t the “right” color to you doesn’t mean you are right. You nor anyone here on earth today has seen him, how do you know what color he was? I have friends that are Jewish not by just faith alone, but blood line, and there color is no different than mine. They don’t all wear signs ya know. If the only think you can think of to argue about is the color of the guy they deemed to play Jesus, you guys are just really digging to pick on this film. Low budget or not you are clearly missing the message and the point.

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