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.