[28 February 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In Woody Allen’s 1986 classic, Hannah and Her Sisters, a character played by Max Von Sydow is watching a typical huckster evangelist on television. Already a cynical artist who finds many of the customers clamoring for his work to be taxing and unworthy, he offers up an opinion on the state of contemporary religion to his girlfriend, a much younger and less jaded woman.
It’s a sentiment that applies with equal efficiency to the new movie, Son of God and it goes a little something like this: “If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.” The meaning is clear: modern society doesn’t “get” Christ. It doesn’t “get’ him at all. Instead, it uses him for all manner of slick and borderline sacrilegious self-promotion and pitches…again, like Son of God.
Carved out of the phenomenally successful TV mini-series The Bible and built out of longer takes, deleted scenes, and some new material, this still flat and uninvolving effort is like those old filmstrips we used to see in elementary school. It doesn’t promote a challenging view of Christianity, plays good guys (Jesus) and bad guys (the Romans, Caiaphas, Pilate) with amazing ease, and takes it preaching to the already converted contrivances to pale prior knowledge levels. We seen it all before…and done much better.
As someone who believes the Good Book offers unlimited story potential and inspiration, this paint by numbers production provides none of the awe or majesty we expect from the material. Instead, it’s a carefully crafted consumer good, guaranteed to make the faithful smile and the non-believer a non-issue while ringing up a few sales.
Diogo Morgado plays the Christ we’ve all come to know: the slightly ethnic but still Caucasian-looking portrait straight out of a Vatican hallway. He does all the things the Gospel tells us about. He raises the dead. He walks on water. He’s all loaves and fishes and water and wine. He’s a primer for how people view Jesus in the Bible, a Sunday School lesson given a big screen push thanks to an already existing pile of footage. Indeed, producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey could have easily saved this direct to DVD level production for a home video release closer to Easter. Instead, they gamble on getting the kind of audience response (and resulting PR push) that came when Mel Gibson unleashed The Passion of the Christ on theaters a decade ago. That film had vision. All this pseudo-movie has is a mission.
Indeed, it’s obvious in today’s gay-bashing, intolerant trenches, faith feels threatened. Those shouting loudest about the danger from abroad are often guilty of the same forced fundamentalism at home, turning questioning into knee-jerk reactions and jokes into a Jihad. Son of God is their salve, a soothing balm placed on top of the seething social sores or reality. It’s a prayer that those who come across it will turn from their wicked ways and walk with the Lord, thereby removing the perceived risk to their freedoms.
The problem with such a position, however, is that you have to have something really compelling to get the borderline cases on your side. But Son of God is rote. Again, it’s nothing you haven’t heard or seen before done in a total tired and bland manner. Gibson’s version of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection may have been marginalized by his own ambitious and arcane agenda, but it was a powerful and potent sermon. This overlong homily will only put you to sleep.
Yes, we get the Nativity, the early days of Christ’s ministry, the Temple tantrum, the Last Supper, and even a few less quality moments. Thanks to a resemblance to President Obama, the Devil’s role is dialed down…a lot! The scourging is just as difficult to watch here as it was/is in Gibson’s film, if only because, post-Passion, Jesus now has to really suffer for our sins.
The moments leading up to the finale have a kind of manipulative emotional resonance since we know where things are going, and the narrative goes the extra mile, dealing with the dynamic that occurs once Christ dies, is reborn, and sends him disciples out to spread the Word. But to get to this moment you have to suffer through a lot of stuff that, frankly, should have stayed on the cutting room floor.
For me, one of the best versions of Christ’s ministry is Cecil B DeMille’s silent classic King of Kings. There, without the need for dialogue and the power of imagery, the famed filmmaker turned Jesus’s trials into a celebration of belief. It dared you to look on what was happened and not be moved or even converted because of it. Son of God has no such designs. Instead, you can feel the creators checking off elements from a list of Christian Movie Mandates, making sure that no one is offended, no one will boycott, and everyone will agree on the final overview. Like those simplistic slide shows from a half a century ago, this is Jesus 101. All other interpretations or questions need to be left at the ticket office.
The bottom line is, this movie is just uninteresting. It doesn’t inspire the Spirit. It merely dulls the senses. It would be nice if the cast could create some tension or intrigue (they don’t) or that the events would be presented in an epic like spectacle (no, it’s just TV cheese). Gibson and DeMille both knew that wonder puts butts in seats and they made sure that even the most cold-hearted atheist would marvel at the movie they made.
On the other side of the spectrum, Franco Zeffirelli and Pier Paolo Passolini made sure to give viewers something to think about, either philosophically (the former) or politically (the latter). In this case, Son of God is merely a cash grab, a chance at banking a few bucks before the entirety of the project loses its luster. On TV, this tired old material might work. On the big screen, it’s dwarfed by its own insignificance.