Film Review: Son of God

The life of Jesus Christ, minus controversy, edited down from a ten-hour History Channel miniseries.

First the good news: Son of God, a distillation of "The Bible," a ten-hour miniseries that appeared on the History Channel, is relatively fast-moving and easy to follow. It covers selected highlights of the life of Jesus Christ with reasonable accuracy while avoiding a lot of the potential landmines in the story.

Unfortunately, this is the equivalent of a Cliff Notes version of a religious epic, a greatest-hits package that skips all the hard parts. Incidents are shown but not examined, and anything that requires more than a superficial explanation is simply ignored. Friendships form, miracles occur, and then some angry people beat, torture and crucify Jesus.

Narrated by John the Apostle (Sebastian Knapp), Son of God opens with a montage of events from the Old Testament. Soon after the Nativity, we see Jesus embark on a career which in three years will lead to his death.

As portrayed by Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado, Jesus comes off as a slightly stoned hippie, a rock star with a beatific smile and an occasional scowl. He gathers followers, starting with Simon Peter (Darwin Shaw), promising that they'll "change the world." By the time Jesus enters Jerusalem for Passover, he is greeted as a king.

Alarmed Pharisees (religious elders) accuse Jesus of blasphemy for forgiving sins. Head priest Caiaphus (Adrian Schiller) appeals to sour-faced Roman prefect Pontius Pilate (a very good Greg Hicks) to kill this self-appointed Messiah, or savior. Egged on by a mob, Pilate has him crucified on a hill with two thieves.
Believers should know this story well enough to spot exactly where lead writer Nic Young departs from the scriptural record. The new dialogue is no match for that found in the gospels, but there aren't many anachronistic howlers either.

The problem with Son of God isn't the dialogue as such, it's what and how the producers and writers choose to portray. The scriptural Jesus is a far more complex and difficult character than the sanitized version presented here. He befriended sinners, prostitutes, lepers, beggars, thieves, the sick and the lame. He told his followers to help the poor, aid prisoners, give away their belongings. He taunted officials, flew into a rage against moneylenders, praised the hated Samaritans over anointed priests.

Producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (who also plays Mary, the mother of Jesus), the creative force behind the hit TV series "Touched by an Angel," deserve credit for their sincere, heartfelt approach to the material. Within reason, they are entitled to their own interpretation of scripture—even if the preponderance of Mary's close-ups threatens to turn this into a vanity project.
But if Burnett and Downey permit niggling inaccuracies, if they miss the point of incidents, if they jumble chronology, their credibility suffers. And then the bad acting, inept line readings and threadbare special effects in Son of God become more apparent. Strictly on a moviemaking level, this is routine stuff, poorly paced, weirdly structured, indifferently acted. The story deserves better.

Viewers will either resent or prefer Son of God's easygoing, watered-down message. The hard parts of what the scriptural Christ preached—love your enemies, believe in the unknowable, abandon all earthly things, live a life of sacrifice—are largely missing here.