Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.
Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 6; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.
“See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
If you watched producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s The Bible on The History Channel last year, then you have already seen 90% of Son of God. Their theatrical film adds some footage to that borrowed from the Jesus section of the series, as well as reworking it somewhat. The film starts out with John (Sebastian Knapp), identified as the disciple and the author of the Apocalypse of John (many scholars believe they were two separate persons), quoting himself, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was…” While he is speaking we see a series of snippets from The Bible—Adam & Eve; Noah; Abraham (thank goodness the bizarre Ninja angels whom Lot hosted were not included!); Sampson; David & Goliath; the Nativity and the visit of the Magi. During this latter clip John is quoting “and the Word became flesh…”
Following the title on the screen, the scene shifts to Prefect Pontius Pilate (Greg Hicks) impatiently making his way with his wife Claudia (Louise Delamere) and retinue toward Jerusalem. Just how cruel he can be we see when he orders his men to push a broken-wheeled cart off the road. They do so before the parents can snatch their young son out of it, the cart crushing the lad in the fall. The Roman column passes by with no concern for the grieving parents. This is one of many incidences that result in the filmmakers’ being a bit heavy handed: they also over do the musical accompaniment, allowing for little actual reflection on a scene and virtually ordering us what to feel. (On the other hand, the episode in which Pilate orders his men to attack the Jerusalem crowd protesting his use of temple money to build an aqueduct is not an exaggeration, the event being based on Flavius Josephus’s History of the Jews.)
We first see Jesus walking toward the Sea of Galilee where he encounters Peter (Darwin Shaw) and shows him where to find a big catch of fish, then calling him to come “change the world.” I wondered at first why the omission of the powerful episode of the Wilderness Temptation, and then I remembered reading that this was cut because the similarity between the actor playing Satan and President Obama had stirred so much controversy. The film seems to rush through the events of Christ’s life, stressing his miracles more than his teachings. The opposition to Jesus is largely embodied in one character, Simon the Pharisee (Paul Marc Davis) whom we first see becoming upset when some of the people he is teaching spot Jesus nearby and rush out to greet him. Simon’s obvious jealousy is quickly joined by his anger and accusation of “Blasphemy!” when he is present at Jesus’ healing of the paralytic. The healing is prefaced by Jesus saying, “Your sins are forgiven.” In the course of the film Simon gets around a lot, his hatred of Jesus growing as the Galilean continues to press his claims to be the Messiah.
Like Zefirelli in his masterful Jesus of Nazareth, the filmmakers sometimes skillfully rearrange the gospel material (I should pluralize that, as the script follows the usual tack of drawing from all four gospels). Jesus is standing before the tax collector’s table while the disciples and Simon look on with obvious disapproval. Jesus tells his parable of The Tax Collector and the Pharisee as he looks at Matthew (as with Simon Peter, this film does not show a before and after conversion name for the pair). When the tax collector in the parable says “Lord, have mercy on me,” Matthew, his eyes tearing up, also says the prayer, and Jesus, noticing this, calls, “Matthew, come!”
Another factor I liked in the film is the showing of Mary Magdalene as being a part of the band of disciples. There seems to be a new feminist consciousness among filmmakers, with such films as Jesus (1979); Jesus Christ: Superstar; Jesus the Miniseries; The Gospel of John; and The Miracle Maker also showing Mary participating in more than just the incidents at the cross and the empty tomb. This also is in keeping with Luke 8:2 which states that Mary and a group of other women accompanied Jesus and the disciples caring for their needs. (For a detailed examination of Mary Magdalene in all the previous Jesus films see my article in the Spring 2006 issue of Visual Parables, “Mary Magdalene in Film: In Response to the Da Vinci Code.”)
This film is neither as great as such mega church leaders as Rick Warren (“best of the Jesus films”), nor is it as mediocre as so many secular critics have claimed. It rated a low 38 out of 100 on the Metacritic site, and just a measly 25% on Rotten Tomatoes, which seems grossly unfair. I suspect that this is a film directed to the choir, rather than one that will move the unconverted, even though it is clearly more evangelical in intent than the other Jesus films, except for Jesus (1979). The film ends with John telling his colleagues, “My brothers, we have work to do,” with a similar message included in narrator John’s vision of the risen Christ quoting the “Alpha and Omega” passage from The Apocalypse of John.
Here are some things to look for in the film which I thought commendable:
1. Portuguese actor Diogo Mordago’s portrayal of Jesus, while not as good as that in Jesus of Nazareth or The Miracle Maker (even though I have watched this claymation film many times, I still get a chill when Ralph Fiennes’ Jesus prays so assionately in Gethsemane!), is still better than the secular critics claim. He is a warm, compassionate healer who reaches out to those excluded by the overly pious.
2. The already mentioned scene in which Jesus uses his Parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee to reach out to Matthew the tax collector. The filmmakers’ freely rearranging the order and/or setting of an incident is very similar to what Matthew and Luke did in using 90% of the text of the Gospel of Mark for their own gospel accounts, changing Mark’s chronology and setting to make their own point about Jesus. He smiles a lot and obviously enjoys being around children.
3. The woman caught in adultery scene is very well handled, with the camera lingering on Jesus with his hand holding up a rock for a long, a very dramatic moment. He then utters his challenge to those without sin to throw the first one—indeed, the script adds him saying that he would give his stone to that sinless man.
3. The depiction of the miraculous without special effects. The miracle, such as that of the loaves and fish, just happens.
4. The crowd of 5000 wants to anoint Jesus as king, but he tells them that this is not the way for him. Later at the crowd’s rejection of Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue there is a parallel moment when Jesus tells Peter, about to hit one of the vociferous accusers of his master, that he must turn the other cheek.
5. The depiction of Caiaphas the High Priest (Adrian Schiller) as a man genuinely believing that Jesus poses a threat to the people. In the scene in which he surveys the large number of dead bodies in the square, following Pilate’s order to his men to strike at a protesting crowd, he seems to feel real grief and anxiety that this could be the future of Jerusalem were Jesus to continue to gain in popularity.
6. The depiction of Nicodemus as the one member of the High Council concerned about Jesus and the legality of his trial. This is not a film that could be used to incite anti-Semitism. The script transfers his visit with Jesus (see John 3) from early in Jesus’ ministry to Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem fits in very well with the plot of the film.
7. The moving juxtaposition of scenes in which Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane with those of Caiaphas praying in the temple, and even one of Pilate’s wife Claudia praying to the Roman ancestral gods.
8. The very moving sequence of scourging, carrying of, and nailing Jesus to the cross—just long enough to make us see and feel the pain and suffering of Jesus, but not so long that the sensitive viewer might become sickened, as in Mel Gibson’s The Passion.
9. The use of all of the so-called seven last words of Christ from the cross.—another example of bringing all four gospel accounts together.
10. The touching Pieta scene in which, mother Mary (Roma Downey) holds the body of her son while John tenderly removes the humiliating crown of thorns from his master’s head.
11. The Easter view of the round stone that had sealed the tomb being, not just rolled away, but split into several large pieces as if by some powerful explosion.
12. Back in the upper room Peter’s post-Easter re-enactment of the Last Supper as he repeats his master’s words about being “the way, the truth, and the life.” This is good theology, reminding us that as we participate in the Eucharist the risen Christ is present with us—and in the film this is followed by Christ’s suddenly appearing to them.
13. John’s closing narration with its references to the verses in the Book of Revelation containing the promise that all suffering and pain will be overcome when Christ returns.
14. And, of course, the inclusion of Mary Magdalene as a companion of Jesus. She even is there in the Garden of Gethsemane among the exclusive circle of the three men whom Jesus had asked to watch with him while he prayed.
I do have some regrets, mainly over omissions. I wish there could have been more of Jesus teachings, especially his parables. And given that the film is narrated by John (with many snippets from Jesus’ discourse in the Upper Room included) I was surprised that the acted out parable of servanthood in which Jesus washed his disciples’ feet was left out. Some liberals have charged that this film made by Fundamentalists is a gross scheme to make money. This might or might not be true, but the producers have nonetheless contributed to the people’s understanding of Jesus and his impact on the world. If the film makes them rich, then so be it: even so, I think you will gain much in viewing the film and discussing it with anyone willing to do so. Elsewhere in this issue you will find a detailed list of 20 other films depicting Jesus Christ. I would gladly add this one to it. It too is like a piece of tile that an artist uses to create a mosaic of Christ: without any one of them, the picture would not be as complete.
The full review with a set of discussion questions is in the March issue of Visual Parables, which will soon be posted.