The recent film Son of God, based on the wildly popular series The Bible (creative, huh?), has not been at the top of my list of movies to see in 2014. Everything about its extensive advertisements made me cringe. But, I watch movies. This is what I do. To pick and choose would be dishonest (or so I keep telling myself). Let’s hope for the best. Well, here we go . . .
Actually, to my surprise, there is a lot that works for Son of God. It is, obviously, based on the public ministry of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the four canonical Gospels. Hardly the first of kind, surely not the last. Its greatest strength lies in its ability to present various well-known and oft repeated set pieces from the Gospels in a way that makes you interpret it in a slightly different light (sometimes this doesn’t work, but more on that later). For example, the scene in which the woman caught in adultery (John 8) is taken to Jesus. The rabbis ask him if they should stone her as the Law demands. Jesus’s famous one-liner is, “Let him who has no sin cast the first stone.” I always imagined Jesus as cool and deadpan in this scene, but Son of God presents him as very concerned for this poor woman’s well-being. He takes up a stone (he does not draw on the ground) and feigns to pitch it at her, but then after a dramatic pause he extends it to the mob and says, “Let him take my stone who can tell me he has never sinned.” The slight change of words frames the actions of the mob differently. It places the emphasis on their willingness to publicly declare their sinfulness, and also refers to their moral state throughout life, rather than just at the moment. It’s a fascinating way to look at it.
I was also pleased to see Jesus actually living as a Jew. Most Jesus movies keep him on the road and up on mountain tops. Here we actually see him reading and teaching (and yes even chanting) in the synagogue. The film is very aware of Judaism in a way most Gospel-based films aren’t. The Pharisees, despite their faults, are mostly pious and well-intentinoed men. Numerous scenes occur either in the Temple during services or in a synagogue with a rabbi. Animals are even shown sacrificed in the Temple, something I can’t ever remember seeing in a movie. Most movies seem to think the Temple is where everyone goes to sit around and talk turkey, when really it’s a bloodbath. We forget that these days.
From a theological perspective there is mercifully little with which to quarrel. Though I kept wishing the filmmakers had gone to greater lengths to make the subtle little connection and points which make the Gospels so interesting translate onto the screen, the film makes very sins of commission. It only errs when it omits or over-simplifies, and never to the point of heresy, but only insofar as the rich text of the Gospel seems floppy and dull. It opens with John’s narration from the very beginning of his Gospel. “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” It ends with him receiving his Apocalypse on Patmos. There are no Antichrists or One World Orders or Raptures, just Jesus revelating to his friend. It’s a new and innovative way to put the cap on a Jesus story, and considering how frequently this story is told and retold, that is refreshing.
Unfortunately, that is the extent of Son of God‘s success, and the bad far outweighs the good. To begin with a technical note: the production values suck! It was, as I mentioned before, spliced together from a TV miniseries and boy does it show. No effort is made to make the film seem remotely theatrical. It is shot in that History-channel documentary style with lots of shaky-cam and awkward slow motion (bring your dramamine, guys!). For as epic as they want it to be, Son of God feels very small, even claustrophobic at times. Very rarely do we get a long shot or a shot covering a landscape, and when we do it is animated with the most gawdawful CG you’re likely ever to see again. The cinematography seems to suffer from Les Miz syndrome. Let us see the sky, please! Enough goofy closeups.
The acting is universally atrocious, about standard for subpar television movies. And of course everyone speaks in a put-on Shakespearian accent which more often than not just sounds gross. Only Pontius Pilate and Nicodemus have any depth, and this has more to do with the roles they fill in the story rather than as characters in their own right. All of these various entities float in and out of the narrative, which is told quite awkwardly in a series of disjointed and almost unrelated vignettes. Jesus heals the paralyzed man. Then he goes over here and multiplies the loaves and the fishes. Then John the Baptist dies (whom we never actually meet in the story, so who cares?) and they talk about him. Usually these scenes are thrown together with a fade-to-black in between them. There is no cohesion. It almost seems as if Gospel events were chosen at random or by lining them all up on a dart board. As such Son of God lacks any kind of arc. The looseness of the story make it feel very long, and in the middle before the Passion begins, it lags something terrible. It wanders and meanders with little or no percievable goals in mind. Steven Greydanus, a Catholic movie critic of DecentFilms.com, said that it plays like a greatest hits version of the Gospels. This is sadly true.
And remember how I said I like the way the film tweaks some of the events to show them in an unfamiliar light? Well, sometimes this works and sometimes it just flops. Possibly the worst is its attempt to make Jesus seem like a nice guy by removing virtually anything that might make its pious audience uncomfortable. When he raises Lazarus from the dead, he arrives in Bethany to find a grieving Martha, and then proceeds to work his miracle. In the Gospel, though he is aware of Lazarus’ sickness and does nothing to help him or his family until he strolls into town a few days later. Only after this escapade does he see fit to resuscitate his friend. When he cleanses the Temple of the money-changers he gets upset and gently knocks over some tables, but there is no wrath in him.* The multiplication of the loaves and the fishes looks too much like magic. At the Last Supper, instead of dipping his bread into the same bowl with Judas his betrayer he takes some bread and feeds it to him. It sounds benign as I type it, but as it plays in the scene it is drawn out and uncomfortable. All of this adds up to one big pile of awkward and silly, which movies about Jesus should not be.
Historically speaking, too, the movie makes several convenient errors. I’m no stickler for history in a movie. I don’t care whether William Wallace really was as great as Braveheart says he is, I just want a good movie. But when liberties taken with the history of a matter start to harm the narrative or overlook certain points integral to the story, then it becomes a problem. The most obvious deviation from history is the movie’s almost cartoonish demonization of Judean procurator Pontius Pilate. He is cruel and brutal, far more daring and authoritarian than the real Pilate ever would have had the nerve to be. He claims he is willing even to shut down the Temple to keep the peace, even though Tiberius Caesar had instructed him to get as little involved in the Jewish religion as possible. He villainy is almost laughable. It also has the unfortunate effect of turning what is a complex and conflicted character into a tyrannical Darth Sidious. This change completely nullifies the narrative usefulness of including Pilate’s wife Claudia Procula, who in the Gospels influences her husband against crucifying Jesus. In this movie her warnings fall on deaf ears, making her completely superfluous.
A few months ago I wrote a piece which likened common forms of Christian media to the cheap satisfaction of pornography. This is a problem I have over and over again with Christian movies, music, and artwork. It is a plague of Biblical proportions, born of wishy-washy faith and intellectual laziness. Flannery O’Connor called this kind of cheap, emotionally satisfying schlock “the parochial aesthetic”, and this movie is steeped in it. Jesus is constantly smiling his charming smile, his brow furled sexily like Brad Pitt’s, looking not unlike George Carlin’s Buddy Christ. The characters speak in contemporary quotidian English, except when quoting form the Bible. Then they slip into an elevated dialect, giving the dialogue an uneven and unnatural feeling. Everyone cries . . . A LOT. Honestly, by the Resurrection the profuse tears had become most tiresome indeed. This Jesus seems to suffer from the same syndrome from which Zac Efron suffers, in which even when delivering what should be straight and collected dialogue, he seems just on the verge of bursting into tears.
It is shamefully melodramatic, focussing on the emotional highs of the Gospels to the detriment of its more subtle and thoughtful moments. Even the film’s color scheme seems influenced by the very worst of bookshelf Christian kitsch. Everyone wears washed out, cheap looking reds and whites, looking very gentle and oh so caucasian. It’s almost as if they hired the illustrators of the most current printing of the Book of Mormon as production designers.
It has been ten years since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was released. For me it is the pinnacle by which all modern Bible movies are measured. Unfortunately, Son of God has none of the former film’s brilliance or depravity. The thing that made The Passion so great was just how strange an bizarre it was, how masochistic and disturbing and challenging it was to watch. One can imagine speaking with the Jesus of the Gospel texts, who never gives and straight answer and always seems unconcerned with matters at hand, to be much like this: difficult, frustrating, and mysteriously compelling. The Jesus of Son of God is nice, and that’s really all there is to say about him. He does not get angry and upset. He makes no judgments. He never asks anyone to slay anyone else before him.
And that I think is finally what the problem with the movie is: for all its virtues, I just can’t see this Jesus as the Theanthropos, the God-Man. I cannot imagine worshipping this Jesus. He’s too worldly and unpredictable, seemingly surprised by things that if he were omniscient he should already know. There is a lack of spirituality in this particular version of the Jesus story. The historical Jesus was not the kind of guy who makes you feel warm and fuzzy or who charms you with his smile. I guess I’m just talking about the difference between this:
*That said, I’ve never seen the cleansing of the Temple done right. He’s always either too calm or too hysterical. This movie errs on the side of calm and friendly. Jesus Christ Superstar shows him throwing a temper tantrum. In the Gospels his outrage seem far more premeditated and probably a lot more scary for those present. I wish just one time they’d allow Jesus to just go ballistic.