Opening almost 10 years to the day after Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ made its way into pop cultural ignominy, Christopher Spencer’s Son of God offers a far more conciliatory, picture-pretty and family-friendly account of the life, death and resurrection of the Christian messiah. It’s also boring: by playing it so safely reverential, Son of God tends to plod its way to Calvary, begging to be discussed among Bible study groups and positively name-checked in the Sunday sermons.
Which it already has been. Borrowing a page or two from the Gibson playbook, Son of God producers Mark Burnett (he of the far unholier Survivor franchise) and Roma Downey (who also plays an unnervingly airbrushed-looking Virgin Mary) have presold the movie in two savvy ways: first by screening it to religious groups and leaders before showing the godless heathen secular press, and second by largely assembling their movie from segments of the already massively presold Bible miniseries that aired to record numbers on the History Channel last year.
So yes, if you’ve seen The Bible, you’ve already seen most of Son of God – but if there’s one story where spoilers just don’t apply, it’s the Greatest One Ever Told.
Opening with a thunderous montage of clips culled from the series, Son of God hurtles us through the Old Testament’s biggest showstoppers – Eden, Noah, Red Sea, etc. – before braking in Bethlehem, where the baby Christ only makes a heavenly gurgle or two before he’s grown into the spectacularly lens-friendly Portuguese model, actor and GQ Man of the Year Diogo Morgado.
Unlike many post-1950s movie Jesuses – consider The Gospel According to St. Matthew, The Last Temptation of Christ or Jesus Christ Superstar – Morgado’s Christ is entirely unafflicted by doubt, desire, ego or any other of those sloppy human flaws: He’s a Messiah on a mission, and from the time he hops into Peter’s boat and offers him a gig as “fisher of men”, he’s on the march. “What are we going to do?” asks Darwin Shaw’s quite reasonably perplexed Peter. “We are going to change the world,” states Jesus.
While much of the movie’s middle passage involves the largely by-the-Good-Book restaging of Christ’s repertoire of greatest miracles and words of wisdom – both staged with kind of flat literalness that leaves Morgado stranded on water with his Colgate-sparkling smile, doleful eyes and crisply laundered robes – Son of God finally acquires some welcome sinister mortal drama as it gets closer to Jerusalem.
Presided over by Greg Hicks’s imperiously patronizing Roman rep Pontius Pilate, whose only interest in these rumours of the king of the Jews runs as far as job security within the empire, Jerusalem is the setting for a percolating gumbo of political intrigue. Pilate’s own self-interest collides with the worries of the high priest Caiaphas (Adrian Schiller), for whom the real threat of the insurgent new religion is the likelihood of wholesale slaughter if the Jews under Jesus rebel.
Not only is this back-chamber stuff more interesting than the holiness spreading outside, and the movie’s sole claim to fresh cinematic interpretation, it allows the actors – and Hicks and Schiller are by far the movie’s best – to do something other than look agape at the shiny-smiled saviour from Nazareth. Or speak lines like this, from the Gethsemane scene: “Run Jesus run!”
Then it’s Passion time of course, and while the ordeal of lashes, thorns, nails and blood isn’t nearly as pulverizing as Gibson’s splatterific gospel, it is sufficiently visceral to remind you that the spectacle of prolonged torture is hardly the exclusive domain of horror and action movies. In life Christ might have suffered for our sins, but in movies he suffers so we can watch.