The Golem Speaks

Son of God Review

Published by Peter Mains on April 09, 2014 at 10:09 AM

I received a message on Twitter recently asking me what I thought of the new movie, "Son of God." At the time, I had not seen the film, but about two weeks ago, I went to go see it. My feelings on the movie were mixed. Having discussed and mulled the particulars of the film, here are my thoughts.

I do not recommend the movie as a tool for evangelization. The film deviates from the Bible at times, making it unsuitable for teaching potential converts about the faith. As a resource for Christians already conversant with the scriptures, though, the film has value. Unlike the new Noah movie, "Son of God" was made by believing Christians. As such, I am willing to accept that the film-makers are making a good faith effort to portray the Gospel in a compelling, accurate manner.

Let's start at the very beginning. The movie begins by echoing the Gospel of John, my favorite Gospel. Then, we see the Magi. Given that the infancy narrative is absent from John, we can surmise this movie is not an attempt to cinematize a specific Gospel. Rather, it is telling the story of Jesus as a whole. This gives the film-makers flexibility to order the chronology how they see fit, which is fine. Unfortunately, this flexibility is seemingly squandered on a script that meanders through various Gospel stories in no apparent order.

For example, the fact that Jesus overturns the money-changers' tables in the temple near the end of the film rather than near the beginning of His ministry seemed like an odd choice. If we use John's Gospel as our guide, then the incident was the start of something big. To tack the scene on near the end just felt wrong.

If that choice were an aberration, it would not warrant a mention. Overall, though, the order of scenes seemed poorly planned, and the movie as a whole came off as disjointed. Rather than a coherent film telling a story, the movie seemed like a series of skits about Jesus. By the end, I felt exhausted rather than inspired and revived.

On the positive side, the production values were strong. The costumes, sets, lighting and photography were all Hollywood calibre. When producers want to go cheap, it seems that camera quality is an easy place to cut. The fact that they appear not to skimp on such things increases my confidence that Mark Burnett and Roma Downey were making this movie out of love for God rather than cynically cashing in on the public's strong (but under-served) appetite for more movies about the Bible.

The acting was also a pleasant surprise. Roma Downey, for example, was a very believable Mary. Christian-targeted movies are often loaded down with wooden performances from subpar actors. There are various reasons for this, but the care taken with the casting suggests to me that there was a lot of heart and sincerity that went into the making of this film. Some performances were better than others, of course, but everybody was at least up to the standard we should expect from a reverent, professional portrayal of a Biblical story.

Diogo Morgado was a strong choice for the role of Jesus. When trying to cast somebody as Jesus, the temptation can be to idealize his appearance. He becomes overly muscular, or effeminate, or he looks a bit too much like a male model. If Jesus has stunningly good looks, then loving Him would be easy. Yet, He was rejected and condemned. Diogo Morgado is believable in large part because he looks like a very normal person. This is the way Jesus should be portrayed. He came down to Earth and became one of us. Jesus was born into a humble family rather than a royal palace.

For similar reasons, the story of the woman caught in adultery was a high point. The woman chosen was no ravishing beauty. If she had been, then an unintended message would have been sent that her forgiveness was earned by her good looks. It is easy to sympathize with the beautiful maiden or Prince Charming, but the Gospel calls us to love everybody.

Another strong point of that scene was the fact that her hands were tied. In my mind's eye, I had never imagined that particular detail. Nor do I recall a representation of that Gospel scene where the woman's hands have been tied. Nevertheless, it seems like a logical inference that she would have been bound in some manner. That she is portrayed as such heightens the sense that she is truly vulnerable and at the mercy of Jesus and the crowd he disperses.

A weak point of the scene is that the dialogue and action were almost entirely changed. In the Gospel, Jesus challenges whoever is without sin to cast the first stone. In the movie, Jesus first raises a stone as if in anger, before challenging the crowd to take the stone from His hand. At no time does Jesus stoop down to write in the dirt, as He does in the Gospel. At best, these choices are interesting as counter-points to the text of the Gospel. Maybe a Bible study could use the contrast as a starting point for a discussion, for example. At worst, they are inexplicable deviations from what is already a compelling story.

Deviations from the precise words of scripture are not necessarily a bad thing. The Gospels can be regarded as accurate representations of the words of our Savior, even if they are not taken to be word for word, stenographic accounts. Furthermore, different translations and phrasings can be useful tools that force us to think about what Jesus is actually saying. So, when I cringed upon hearing, "from where it comes" and "to where it goes," rather than the familiar, "whence it comes" and "whither it goes," I can accept that such a deviation from my expectation is not necessarily a bad choice.

The expanded role of Barabbas was well done. His character is deftly crafted to be both believable and illuminating. Clearly, the writers understood the significance of Barabbas, the ineffectual political revolutionary, being juxtaposed with Jesus Christ, the man of peace who conquered the Roman Empire. This insight is amplified by the scene where we see Pontius Pilate commenting that Jesus will be forgotten in a week. The scene is thankfully played straight rather than for laughs. Barabbas, a false messiah of sorts, really was forgotten by history. We are left trying to reconstruct who he was and what he was all about by piecing together fragmentary clues in Scripture and other historical sources. Jesus, the true Son of God, cannot be lumped together. So, even though Barabbas' is an embellishment, it presents the faithful viewer with real food for thought and prayer.

Other invented scenes and pieces of dialogue are more problematic. When Jesus informs Peter that they are going to "change the world," (where was his brother, Andrew, by the way?) that sounds untrue to the story. This is the Jesus who tells us that His kingdom is not of this world. Yes, Jesus did change the way that people think about profound moral questions. His teachings are embedded in countless ways in our laws, customs, family relations and more. Nevertheless, Jesus is not a self-help guru. He does not want to make us content here on Earth if that contentment comes at the cost of our salvation. Jesus wants to change us so that we can live together with Him in Heaven for all eternity.

Whether you view "Son of God" as a success or a failure depends on what you are hoping to get out of the movie. If you want a satisfying film experience, then this is not your movie. The movie does not feel like it comes to a strong resolution because it does not feel like a unified story to begin with. Lacking this, the tension of the story does not build up in order to be resolved.

On the other hand, many of the individual scenes are well done. Who's to say that they cannot be enjoyed as just that: a collection of Bible stories? In this day and age, we buy individual songs rather than full albums from iTunes. No longer are we required to rewind video cassettes before returning them to Blockbuster (if you can still find one in your neighborhood).

If your main criterion is fidelity to the text, then this is only a partial success. The viewer needs to watch the film with a discerning eye. Hence, I would not recommend this movie for children or those unfamiliar with the story of Jesus. If this were your first exposure to the Gospel, I imagine that it might be difficult to recall what was from the film and what is really in the Bible.

This is surely not what Downey and Burnett were aiming for. Nevertheless, "Son of God" is a serious attempt at telling the story of Jesus Christ. The strong effort in so many aspects partially salvages this problematic film.

comments powered by Disqus
Monthly Archives

Yearly Archives

Latest Articles
April 09, 2014