‘Son of God’: The Good Shepherd in a not-so-good movie
You feel worse about ripping some films than others. If it’s exploitative dreck or cynical torture porn or a brainless sequel, you just fire away, grateful for the opportunity to vent and to warn movie-lovers to stay away.
This is not the case with “Son of God.” You almost wince when reviewing this one. The driving forces behind this miniseries-turned-feature film are the husband-and-wife team of Mark Burnett (creator of such enduring reality series as “Survivor” and “Shark Tank”) and Roma Downey (“Touched by an Angel”), two of the loveliest and most spiritual people it has been my privilege to encounter in the business of show.
There’s also the subject matter. This is the first feature in recent memory telling us a life-spanning story of Jesus Christ, from his birth through the recruitment of the disciples through the Last Supper and the trial before Pontius Pilate, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. It is the story of the faith in which I was raised, and it is a story told here with great reverence and extremely faithful renditions of scenes from the New Testament.
But, alas, it’s not a good movie.
Based on Burnett and Downey’s History channel miniseries “The Bible” (with the addition of new footage), “Son of God” stars the Portuguese-born heartthrob actor Diogo Morgado as Jesus, who has the shiniest white teeth and the most amazingly coiffed long hair of anyone around as he trods the dusty roads of Jerusalem. Morgado wears a kind of knowing smirk on his face as Jesus enlists the 12 disciples and sets out to preach the word, performing miracles such as feeding the multitudes with just a few fish and loaves of bread.
It’s not a good performance. Morgado throws himself into the work, especially during the prolonged Crucifixion sequence, but he hits a lot of wrong notes. He’s reminiscent of one of those New Age magicians who regard the disbelieving throngs with something resembling compassionate pity before wowing them with another amazing trick.
But back to the beginning. Before we even get to the birth of Jesus, the prologue in “Son of God” takes us through the story of Adam and Eve, followed by brief scenes of Noah, Abraham, Moses and King David, among others.
Then the miracle of Christ’s birth is faithfully reenacted, complete with wise men and the Star of Bethlehem, after which we zoom forward to scenes of Jesus with the disciples and Mary Magdalene, gaining popularity with each passing day, much to the consternation of the Jewish high priest Caiaphas, who brings his concerns to Pontius Pilate, the prefect of the Roman province of Judea.
Of course, we know this story as well as we know any story ever told. With the signature sounds of Hans Zimmer underscoring every scene, director Christopher Spencer doesn’t provide much in the way of creative camerawork as we see Jesus walking on water (the special effects are just OK), turning over the tables of the merchants at the temple, basking in the glory of what will come to be known as Palm Sunday, enduring unspeakable torture before he dies.
Adrian Schiller does good work as the scheming Caiaphas, and Greg Hicks gives the best performance in the film as the coldly calculating Pilate, who shrugs off his plan to execute Jesus thusly: “No one will remember his name in a week.”
While nowhere near as brutal as Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” the scenes of Jesus being whipped as his anguished mother (Downey) cries out are unsparing as is his long and torturous march while carrying his own cross.
The Resurrection scenes should be glorious and chill-inducing, but again, to see such a literal translation, with Jesus actually glowing while showing his wounds to Thomas, isn’t nearly as powerful and moving as reading the Gospel According to Luke.
“Son of God” debuted on 3,000 screens Feb. 28. According to The Hollywood Reporter, churches and religious groups had some 500,000 tickets in advance to give away. (Relief organization Compassion International purchased a total of 225,000 tickets in 40 cities including Chicago.) Some churches have rented out theaters for screenings. Liberty University rented out a Regal multiplex near its Lynchburg, Va., campus, and “Son of God” was shown on all 14 screens on Feb. 28.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that.
When Burnett and Downey were guests with Roe Conn and me on WLS-AM (890), they spoke of their hopes the film will be playing in churches and other venues not just five years from now, but 50 years from now. As an introduction to the life of Jesus for a youth of a certain age, “Son of God” is a more impressive piece of work than an inexpensive educational docudrama.
But regardless of your faith (or mine), this space is for me to tell you if a particular film contains a high enough percentage of compelling elements to warrant you devoting $10 and 138 minutes of your time to the experience.
In all good conscience, it’s not even a close call.