The Bible tells us, "In the beginning was the Word." (John 1:1) "The Word," in this case, is understood to be Jesus Christ himself, who became "The Word made flesh" (John 1:14) for his time on Earth. If that's the case, then it's only fitting that Jesus has also been with filmmaking itself from its own beginning as a narrative art form. His story has certainly been one of the most filmed of all time.
As early as 1902, France's Pathé company presented the first in a series of impressive (for the time) shorts depicting "The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ." From DeMille's silent era King of Kings (starring H.B. Warner in one of cinema's better Jesus performances) to Nicholas Ray's 1961 Hollywood epic of the same name (starring Jeffery Hunter in the title role), and beyond, it's become apparent that the movies are no exception to Jesus' final statement in the book of Matthew, "And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." Too bad, then, that the latest offering, Son of God from producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, feels like it may drag on just that long.
With all due respect to the Bible, which I respect in abundance, it's films like this one that perpetuate the common notions of Christianity as something tired, boring, and insular. While the film eventually pulls itself together in time for its crucifixion sequence, that's not enough to elevate this expanded television episode beyond anything that only traditional Christian audiences -- typical non-filmgoers whom are content to see their story dramatized verbatim ad nauseam, and unlikely to venture cinematically beyond that -- will sit still for.
In its better moments, there are signs that Son of God wants to break free from being yet another Bible study guide brought to life. But inevitably, an apparent fear and unwillingness to loosen the sacred sandals keeps it a largely lifeless endeavor. If only these filmmakers, in all their binding reverence, would, for example, let the characters speak dialogue that's still in keeping with the Good Book, if not verbatim, this world they've gone to such pains to depict would feel so much more authentic. The Gospels need not be boring, yet here they are again playing out as some kind of tired, recycled Sunday school lesson.
And worse yet, computer generated Jerusalem looks foggy and half-rendered, and Portuguese born Diogo Morgado, in portraying Christ, gives a performance that is at once over-dramatic and fatally interior. While it's nice to see a movie Jesus smiling every now and then, Morgado seems lost in the part. And while believably portraying a character who's fundamentally both perfect-God and fragile-human is asking a lot of any actor -- indeed, the pantheon of performers having played Jesus is one of subsequently tragic lives and/or dwindled careers -- Morgado carries Christ's weight of the world with an unenthusiastic woe, delivering his scriptural dialogue like apologetic riddles.
Of course, if Christian audiences do show up for Son of God, they'll likely have already reconciled these shortcomings. The 138-minute film is culled from footage both used and unused by the 10-hour History Channel mini-series, The Bible (which was amusingly accused of featuring an Obama-esque Satan), which aired on cable just last year. The Bible was tremendously well received as a TV event, and was promptly packaged to believers on DVD and Blu-ray.
Why then, cobble the Christ episodes together for one more trip to the well? Besides the fact that it's been ten years since distributor 20th Century Fox saw The Passion of the Christ earn $370 million-plus at the box office, and are now moved to once again pass that plate around to the believing congregation? (This time playing it safe, without Mel Gibson, or even Obama-Satan?)
But perhaps it's not fair to accuse Son of God of being a blatant cash grab. After all, this isn't the first time pre-existing footage intended for television has been re-sculpted into a theatrical release. We need to look no further than David Lynch's 2001 Mulholland Dr. - a film that now sits among Sight & Sound magazine's critics list of the Top 50 Films Ever made.
Unfortunately, Son of God will find no such ranking. It shouldn't even be among the top "Jesus movies" ever made. On the whole, despite some decent supporting performances (Roma Downey shows up as Mary, mother of Jesus) it plays like glorified re-enactment footage intended for a History Channel documentary. Which isn't surprising, considering that its primary director is Christopher Spencer, who's made a long list of BBC and National Geographic documentaries (including "The Human Body" and "Stonehenge: Decoded"). Being made up of almost all close-ups and medium shots, this is strictly made-for-television fare.
It may be a little hypocritical, then, that I consider Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 TV mini-series Jesus of Nazareth the uneasy standard bearer for cinematic treatments of the life of Christ. That film is probably my favorite, in large part because I grew up watching it every year, but also because it resonates. Robert Powell, as impossibly European as he is, might still be my favorite movie Jesus. (The U.K. version of The Bible apparently capitalized on this, as Powell served as narrator of the series in that country.) It has an amazing cast (anchored by scenery chewing Brits, including Peter Ustinov, Michael York, and Donald Pleasance), and an unforgettable musical score by Maurice Jarre. Although Jesus of Nazareth is another epic TV endeavor, there's a world of artistic difference between what Zeffirelli and Spencer bring to the material.
The second half of the film picks up both in terms of aesthetic visualization and emotional power as it offers a bloody effective rendering of the crucifixion. Being a lifelong Bible-believing, church-going Christian, I'll concede a certain personal vulnerability when it comes to my processing of even the most inept depictions of this most historic of events. It's always a struggle for one to discern the flaws in adapted material when the source material is deeply personal (heck, I get mad when they mess up Spider-Man!), but I think I can safely say that this prolonged sequence works as intended, even if filmgoers have seen umpteen crucifixion scenes before, and this one ultimately does blend right in.
The problem is that Son of God's first half is so dully non-cinematic that editors at media outlets should rightfully grapple with whether to run coverage of the release among the weekly film reviews or in the Faith & Religion section. It ticks along bullet-pointing the famous highlights of Christ's ministry - miracles, confrontations, etc. - each one portraying Jesus as perpetually bathed in light, and culminating with a repetitive swell of the Hans Zimmer musical score.
This is a positively sleep-inducing chronicle that lacks any narrative drive or personal engagement beyond whatever audience members bring in with them. It's said that husband and wife producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey have created The Bible mini-series and subsequently, Son of God, as evangelical tools intended to communicate their faith to the world. Sadly however, what we have here - whatever their intentions - is yet another Jesus movie that is merely preaching to the choir.