“SON OF GOD” — ★★★ — Diogo Morgado, Greg Hicks, Roma Downey, Darwin Shaw; PG-13 (intense and bloody depiction of the crucifixion, and for some sequences of violence); in general release
“Son of God” features impressive production value, strong acting and a score from Hans Zimmer. But for all its powerful moments, the ultimate reception for “Son of God” may depend on the specific background of its audience members.
Built out of footage from Roma Downey and Mark Burnett’s 2013 Bible miniseries, along with some new material, “Son of God” focuses exclusively on the mortal ministry of Jesus Christ (played by Diogo Morgado). Told from the perspective of the apostle John (Sebastian Knapp), the film picks up shortly after the beginning of Christ’s ministry, following a quick montage of Old Testament highlights that provide some background for his mission.
For the next hour or so, “Son of God” proceeds at a quick pace. Apostles such as Peter (Darwin Shaw) and Matthew (Said Bey) are brought into the fold, miracles rally the faithful and, as Christ’s fame spreads, the concern of the Pharisees grows. One quickly gets the feeling that a thorough production of Christ’s ministry could merit an epic miniseries of its own. In spite of the film’s two-and-a-half-hour length, there is only time to touch on some of the more poignant miracles and stories from the Gospels (primarily that of John), such as the raising of Lazarus and the story of the woman caught in adultery. Much of this is couched in contextual asides that illustrate the Roman oppression overshadowing the entire story.
By presenting the material this way, the producers assume quite a bit of pre-existing knowledge and understanding on the part of their audience, which is unfortunate for anyone coming into the film without it.
Instead of using subtitles or having characters speak in King James English, characters in “Son of God” use a more contemporary vernacular. While this is clearly meant to make the language and teachings more accessible, a certain poetic quality is lost. The end result is a film that doesn’t give its general audience quite enough material to get invested, and for a religiously oriented audience it may feel a bit simplistic.
None of this is to say that “Son of God” is a bad film — far from it. But it could find itself in a no-win situation with its chosen audience. One might assume that a mainstream film on the life of Christ would be enough to make Christian audiences happy on its own, and for many, that may prove to be the case.
But the filmmakers’ interpretation of New Testament stories is bound to raise a few eyebrows, such as when Christ’s prophecy about the destruction of the temple is delivered with a flippant quality to a young girl, or when the events at the Garden of Gethsemane get almost completely passed over. At other times, certain narratives are abridged or altered for convenience.
It’s also interesting to see the sympathetic nod given to Judas Iscariot. For some, none of this will be a problem at all, but it will certainly distract anyone looking for a film that is chapter-and-verse faithful.
The bulk of the screen time is dedicated to Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion, which is still quite violent even if it falls short of the R-rated visuals of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” Regardless of one's background, Christian or otherwise, these scenes offer the most moving moments of the film, though they might be a bit too much for small children.
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Burnett himself has stated that “Son of God” is “an evangelizing tool.” But apart from providing some additional historical context and a slightly less graphic depiction of Christ's suffering, “Son of God” feels nice but not entirely necessary. It’s a great option if you’re looking for something with a stronger spiritual foundation than a lot of what is currently in theaters, but it will probably strengthen beliefs more than it will expand them.
“Son of God” is rated PG-13 for intense and bloody depiction of the crucifixion, and for some sequences of violence; running time: 140 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.