Christopher Spencer’s Son of God was, as you probably know, whittled into a feature film out of the Jesus portions of last year’s epically successful cable TV miniseries The Bible. And while some additional footage was shot (by other directors) to turn the original miniseries chapters into a more whole and cohesive feature film, it still feels like a piece of something larger. Indeed, so much incident is quickly passed over in this movie, that it starts to feel like a recap of last week’s episode of Christ’s life. Call it Previously on Jesus.
Son of God seems to strike all the visuals of a biblical epic just right, although without the gigantic budget to make it feel truly epic. The costumes and Moroccan settings all seem to strive for a classically Christian look, and the actors – for the most part – visually embody the biblical figures we are all familiar with. Some of the CGI settings look especially low-rent, however, and the less-than-cinematic digital photography is unfortunately noticeable. In short, Son of God looks like a TV miniseries, despite the expansion and cinematic additions.
More than that, though, Son of God condenses many of Christ’s teachings and beatific philosophies into what can amount to a glorified highlights reel. We get Jesus (Portuguese babe Diogo Morgado) reciting some of his more famous aphorisms, usually within a brief, immediately recognizably biblical scene, all sadly free of a larger context. Since the Nativity portion of his life was skipped in this version, and we never see John the Baptist, Jesus appears on screen essentially fully formed. And while it’s fair to assume that audiences know the details of this story (Jesus is arguably the most famous person in all of Western Civilization), a more coherent storytelling approach would have been appreciated. At the very least, Jesus himself seems to have a bit more character than in previous iterations. Here, finally, is a Christ who smiles while he teaches, even if he is a bit aloof.
But if the point of this adaptation was to depict Christ as an aloof spiritual leader, full of peaceful ideas so ineffably advanced that most people have trouble catching up to his Godlike ideals, then Son of God still would have benefited from a more rich portrait of his disciples and how they reacted to living with someone like Jesus. The disciples move as a vague unit in this movie, only speaking up when biblical text requires them to. We get no sense of any of these people other than St. John (Sebastian Knapp), who gives brief pieces of narration to string the story together. Even Mary Magdalene (Amber Rose Revah), a fascinating figure, is reduced to a kind of one-of-the-boys Gal Friday.
Like many Christ stories, this Greatest Story Ever Told clearly prefers to focus on Jesus’ torture and crucifixion over his teachings and ideas. Christ’s martyrdom is central to many Christian churches, so it tends to be the crux of most filmed Jesus stories. Sadly, that means the bulk of Jesus’ life is, in Son of God, relegated to the first hour of film, while the following 73 minutes all deal with the trial and the execution. After Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, one would think we’ve seen enough of Jesus getting the everlovin’ snot beaten out of him. Worthy of note: Son of God is being released in theaters nearly ten years to the day after The Passion of the Christ. I guess Ash Wednesday has now become the unofficial crucifixion movie date.
Son of God seems to lack perspective. It makes so many assumptions of the audience, that it feels perfunctory throughout, and, as a result, bland. Again, I think it’s safe to make assumptions when dealing with an historical figure like Jesus Christ, but that doesn’t grant the filmmakers a reprieve from making a solid and structured feature film with character and richness. I don’t necessarily need a bold new controversial interpretation of the Christ story (like, say, Scorsese’s excellent 1988 controversy magnet The Last Temptation of Christ), but I would at least appreciate some texture.