Is it possible to love Jesus and not like “Son of God”?
That’s the slightly discomfiting question some viewers might face upon seeing the feature film, presented by producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett as a condensed form of their 2013 History Channel miniseries, “The Bible.”
Such bold repurposing (and monetizing) of their property may strike some observers as the ultimate in, you should pardon the expression, chutzpah. But “Son of God” is nothing if not sincere, its earnest retelling of Jesus’s life story resembling a gentle, pop-up book version of the New Testament, its text reenacted for maximum reassurance and intellectual ease. After a brief scene at the manger, the film focuses on his teachings as an adult, a series of tableaux that, in their perfunctory pacing and diorama-like staging, play like the Messiah’s greatest hits. Those loaves and fishes? They’re here. Casting the first stone? Yep. Lazarus? You bet. At a recent screening, a viewer could be heard murmuring along to the familiar gospels, like a baby boomer mouthing lyrics at a Dylan concert. (“Do your early stuff!”)
Enough snark. It’s easy to take pot shots at “Son of God,” which hasn’t been directed as much as cobbled together by “Bible” veteran Christopher Spencer. The visual effects are often cheesy, the dialogue leaden, the melodramatic emotionalism continually snuffing out the possibility of authentic emotion. To its credit, the film places Jesus firmly within his historical context of oppression at the hands of Roman authorities in first-century Palestine, where Jewish leaders desperately tried to preserve their fragile kingdom by placating and politicking. Having excised at least one controversial character — a devil figure many critics thought bears an uncanny likeness to our president — Downey and Burnett take pains to identify Jesus as a Jew, his disciples intoning prayers over his battered body after the crucifixion.
In other words, there’s nothing to give the slightest offense in “Son of God,” which is at its modest best when it’s focusing on palace intrigue in Jerusalem between Roman governor Pontius Pilate (a scowling Greg Hicks) and high priest Caiaphas (a sour Adrian Schiller). As for Jesus himself, Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado is all beachy waves and beatific smiles, his teeth an impeccable white even when covered in blood.
And there’s a lot of blood in “Son of God,” as well as swordplay, especially at the hands of sadistic Roman soldiers. There’s a lot of crying too, especially from Downey herself, who plays Jesus’s mother, Mary. As the Passion hews to its inevitable narrative, more than a few audience members may find themselves reflexively humming tunes from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the 1970s musical that, for all of its own sometimes inadvertent campiness, can now be appreciated for creating moments of genuine feeling in its music, metaphors and imaginative staging.
“Son of God,” on the other hand, continually falls prey to starchy, even sophomoric literalism, with Jesus’s teachings sounding like carefully rehearsed speeches and his miracles coming off like magic stunts. As for the tricky challenge of representing God, at one point in Gethsemane we’re encouraged to imagine an entity akin to the Man in the Moon.
Its narrative is too simplistic, its drama too inert for “Son of God” to be taken seriously as art; as iconography, it exists somewhere on the continuum between Warner Sallman’s 1940 “Head of Christ” and Ted Neeley’s groovy blue-eyed savior in “Superstar.” But Downey and Burnett clearly mean for their film to make an impact not as an aesthetic experience, but as a spiritual one. And their tireless evangelism for their movie has worked: More than half-a-million advance tickets reportedly have been sold to church groups across the country.
To the filmgoers thronging to theaters this weekend: Don’t expect to see a great film, or even a very good one. Whether you discover a meaningful channel with which to continue your walk with the film’s protagonist, however, is strictly between you and your god.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains an intense and bloody depiction of crucifixion and some sequences of violence. 138 minutes.