MPAA Rating: PG-13
USCCB Rating: A-III
Reel Rating: (3 Reels out of 5)
The greatest story ever told is also the most recognizable. The good news has been retold so many times over so many centuries and in so many ways—poems, plays, novels, movies, and mini-series—that another book or film about Jesus cannot simply tell the story but must tell it in a new way. Because the audience does not need every plot detail, the director is often free to emphasize certain aspects of the narrative to highlight specific lessons or characters.
This latest “Jesus movie” actually began as the ten-part miniseries The Bible on the History Channel, edited to a manageable two hours with a few new scenes for continuity. Unfortunately, Son of God still feels like a TV movie with film ambitions. The mustard seeds of those ambitions are present but never bloom into a tree.
Son of God focuses on Jesus’ imperative to “be not afraid but believe,” an important lesson in society where Christians increasingly feel alienated and even persecuted. At the beginning, Pilate and his entourage are traveling to Jerusalem when their way is blocked by a broken cart. Pilate promptly tells his men to simply overturn the cart, ignoring a young Jewish boy on top who is crushed to death. These violent Romans produce violent Jews who continually encourage Jesus to help them conquer the foreign oppressors. In addition to the violence on both sides, Jesus and his followers are faced with a slow, dark conspiracy from their own religious authorities.
In response to all these enemies, Jesus simply tells them to “be not afraid,” and repeats it again and again throughout the film. This situation, when all of Jesus’ enemies are closing in, is eerily similar to today. The Church is faced with militant Islam, aggressive atheism, civil discrimination, and even corruption and sexual scandal from within her own walls. Christ too tells us: “Be not afraid.” When secularism barks, simply believe. Jesus rose from the dead; how could it possibly not work out?
One aspect the film handles surprisingly well is the Eucharist. At the last supper, Jesus (Diogo Morgado) states firmly that the elements are indeed His Body and Blood. This is not surprising but refreshing in a film that is not catered to any specific Christian church or denomination. Judas (Joe Wredden) receives the Eucharist like the other disciples but on his way to betray Jesus spits it on the ground. It’s a shocking desecration that mirrors what he is about to do. When Mary and Peter report the risen Christ to the disciples, Peter consecrates the bread and wine and Jesus suddenly emerges behind them. This extra-biblical addition lends itself to possibly strange theology but makes clear the Real Presence of Christ.
Another unique feature is Greg Hicks’ riveting performance of Pontius Pilate. Most biblical films portray Pilate as a hesitant philosopher who recognizes Jesus’ innocence but wants to keep the peace. Here, Pilate is a ruthless dictator who couldn’t care less about “what truth is.” After the crucifixion, he is receiving an oil massage when his wife, troubled by his actions, approaches him. He assures her, “this one is no different. He will be forgotten in a week.” This might not be in complete agreement with the biblical evidence but reminds the audience that Pilate had a central role in Christ’ death.
Unfortunately, the biggest problem with Son of God is the limitation of its television origins. As a small-screen mini-series, it was widely popular and appealing. On the big screen, it suffers from a lack of spectacle and scale. The beginning narration with the elderly apostle John (Sebastian Knapp) covers the entire history of salvation—and the rest of the miniseries—from Adam right up to the adult Jesus in a matter of minutes. Jesus calls Peter (Darwin Shaw, in a great performance) and the rest of disciples in quick succession.
If the film had kept this pace, it may have been more compelling but grinds to a screeching halt in the second act, spending nearly an hour on the intrigue of the Jewish authorities investigating Jesus. It also reveals its small screen origin in a lack of characters. When Jesus enters Jerusalem, only a handful of travelers are with him. Computer-generated Jerusalem itself looks no bigger than the Washington Mall. As Jesus enters the passion narrative, it is impossible not to remember another film that premiered almost exactly a decade ago that was so much better. When the cross is put in place, this movie even replicates that previous film almost shot for shot.
Son of God ultimately succumbs to the usual problems that plague films of this nature. If “even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” about Jesus, it is hardly surprising that a single film would be lacking. The best approach to this subject is a long episodic format like Zeffirelli’s miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. Film can be effective if it examines one facet of Christ like Wyler’s Ben-Hur.
However, Son of God does succeed where it counts: excellent acting, strong writing, and a firm evangelical invitation to a deeper relationship with Jesus. It is a good film that does everything right, but in such a competitive field with such a high standard of excellence, it falls just short of the mark.