Former model Diogo Morgado plays a hot, smiling Jesus in "Son of God." Credit: Casey Crafford
'Son of God' Director: Christopher Spencer Stars: Diogo Morgado, Darwin Shaw Rating: PG-13 1 Globe (out of 5)
A long time ago, Hollywood was in the biblical behemoth business. Only four years separate two of the largest Jesus epics: the pretty but vacant “King of Kings” — made by cinemascope master Nicholas Ray (“Rebel Without a Cause”) in 1961 — and George Stevens’ hubristic and hilariously star-studded “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (with John Wayne as "Centurion at the Crucifixion"). The genre's fall from grace, if you will, explains why the multiplexes are occasionally polluted with strange, cost-cutting and questionable numbers like “Son of God,” which — unlike the cinema of Kirk Cameron, say — doesn’t even have the decency to be new material.
In fact, if you’re paying to see it, it’s likely you’ve seen it before: It’s been culled from the smash hit miniseries “The Bible.” There’s new footage, but only a little, and it’s only there to make it function as a stand-alone film. Otherwise it’s actually shorter. The show spent four hours on J.C. (played — more accurately “posed by” — former Portuguese model Diogo Morgado). Here, we only get two-and-change, and it’s focused on the most familiar part of his life: when he walked into the hornet’s nest of Jerusalem, pissed off the local Jewish officials and suffered a bloody, horrible, galvanizing death.
Give “Son of God” this: It doesn’t pretend to placate the secular. This is a straight-up for-the-believers production that doesn’t hide its religious fervor or try to slip itself past secularists. At the same time it doesn’t want to be TBN kitsch. It has … well, a bit of a budget. The token city cutaway shots are laughable CGI, but the filmmakers try their best to make TV look like cinema, even if their only workable solution is to shake the camera about.
But no amount of herky-jerk can improve wan performances. Aside from Darwin Shaw, who works some gravitas into his doubting Peter, the actors are wide-eyed and cheesy — the kind a budget wasted on a ridiculously ambitious scope (like adapting the Bible) can afford. They lack nuance, as does the film, which is how it likes it; strong actors would add too much character. It wants to do the Passion without any of that pesky revisionism in films as diverse as “Jesus Christ Superstar” or “The Last Temptation of Christ.”
Thing is, the best biblical films do allow an in for non-Christians. One of the finest Christ pictures — “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” from 1964 — was made by a gay atheist, Pier Paolo Pasolini (later of the fascist BDSM horrorshow "Salo"). That film, made in the Italian neo-realist style, stressed the social justice aspect of Jesus’ work. “Son of God” almost entirely ignores that. Its Jesus does little but look hot and perform magic. Rather than offer practical solutions to the poor, he makes fish magically appear, and assures his followers that they won’t die after they die. He stands atop water during a torrential storm in one of many fits of unconvincing special effects.
Say what you will about Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” — a film “Son of God” winds up copying in its final stretch, albeit in sanitized PG-13 form — but it had a real perspective (albeit an antisemitic one), and a sense of cinema. “Son of God” has none. The best you can say for it is deals more than most Jesus movies with the politics that doomed J.C. Both a hissable Pontius Pilate (Greg Hicks) and haughty high priest Caiaphas (Adrian Schiller) are depicted as fearing eachother's power, thus manipulating the action to paint Christ as a scapegoat. But the majority of it falls under the term “junk for Jesus” — cynical attempts to fleece the faithful with religious trinkets. And if that weren’t enough, it’s not nearly long enough.