It didn’t take too long after the invention of the movie camera in the 1890s for filmmakers to begin producing short features based on stories from the Bible, more often than not in the form of staged productions of Passion Plays. When feature length films finally made their way into cinemas, Biblical dramas soon followed, with 1903’s Samson and Delilah being the first of over 50 silent movies to draw on tales from Scripture. And with 1929’s Noah’s Ark becoming the genre’s first talkie, the Bible movie was here to stay, with literally hundreds of Scripture-themed films being produced over the next century. In short, there’s been a whole lot of movies made about the Bible.
And why wouldn’t there be? With over 2.2 billion Christians and 14 million Jews in the world, that’s a heck of a lot of potential ticket buyers. Given such numbers, it would be easy to dismiss the latest entry in the genre, director Christopher Spencer’s Son of God, as something of a cash-grab. The brainchild of the husband and wife team of producer Mark Burnett and actress Roma Downey, Son of God is comprised mostly of footage from the couple’s 2013 mega-hit television miniseries, The Bible. All they’ve done is simply taken a good portion of that footage from the show which dealt with the life of Jesus, re-edited it with some additional new scenes, and released the finished product into movie theaters in time for Lent. Any cynic worth their salt would probably call that double-dipping.
But the truth is, there are lots of people, myself included, who didn’t watch the miniseries when it aired on the History Channel. What can I say, I’m one of those new-fangled viewers who binge watches entire shows months, sometimes years, after they’ve gone off the air. I just figured I’d catch The Bible once it hit Netflix or Amazon. So for myself, and those others like me, Son of God is a new thing, just the latest in Hollywood’s long line of Biblical epics. So, how does the movie hold up to its lofty predecessors?
Well, I can at least say that, whether the film’s investors were interested in double dipping or not, the movie itself is dead earnest in its intentions. Unlike a film such as The Last Temptation of Christ, Son of God adds nothing new nor takes away anything of doctrinal importance from the story of Jesus. You’re not going to find any non-divine Christ walking around in existential angst in this film. In fact, the movie begins with a prologue comprised of scenes from the Old Testament, sort of a “greatest hits” compilation, if you will. And over these brief flashes of ancient heroes such as Abraham, Noah, and David, we hear the voice of the apostle John explaining how the second person of the Trinity was present in all of these events. It’s a (very) brief introduction to Christian typology which instantly clues you in that there will be no monkeying around with generally accepted theology.
Of course, the desire to avoid too much that isn’t in Scripture means there’s no place for entertaining dramatic additions like the torrid relationship between Moses and Nefretiri in The Ten Commandments or the sinister machinations of Satan in The Passion of The Christ. Interestingly, it seems The Bible mini-series itself did contain scenes involving the Devil, but after a minor controversy revolving around the apparent resemblance of Beelzebub to President Barack Obama, the filmmakers decided to leave those parts on the cutting room floor rather than have them once more become the topic of discussion when the movie hit theaters. Still, it’s a fair trade-off. The lack of non-biblical plot points at least allows Son of God to avoid embarrassing the Christian religion in the way something like Godspell did. You remember Godspell, don’t you, the movie that launched a thousand clown masses? You get none of that nonsense here, so at you’ll at least be able to safely show clips of the film to your faith formation classes once it comes out on DVD.
There are some minor non-biblical flourishes, however, a couple of which will be of particular interest to Catholics–not a bad business decision on the part of the filmmakers given that at least 50% of all Christians belong to the Catholic Church. One scene involves Mary rushing to the side of the fallen Jesus as he carries his cross to Calvary (that’s the Fourth Station for all you Way of the Cross devotees). After being reassured by her son that what is transpiring is God’s will and necessary for the good of all, Mary bows her head in acceptance and then helps lift the cross back up so Jesus can continue on his way. It’s a nice touch to which fans of Mary will respond, “Well, of course she would do that.” More surprising, though, is the scene after Mary Magdalene leads Peter to the empty tomb. Failing to convince his fellow apostles that Jesus has indeed returned, Peter calls for bread and wine and offers them all communion. It’s only after they’ve partaken that Jesus appears amongst them. It’s almost as if the movie is saying that if you want to see Jesus in the flesh, then take this, all of you, and eat of it. It’s a pretty amazing Catholic moment to see onscreen, one made all the more astounding by the fact that it was put there by Protestants.
Unfortunately, there are some not-so-astounding things about the film as well. Although the production level is fairly good, it’s still television-level good. Things which probably looked acceptable on the small screen come across as a bit too fake on the big one. The shots of the digitally reconstructed ancient Jerusalem are particularly jarring, looking less like a cinematic effect and more like something you would see on, well, the History Channel. Even similarly budgeted fare such as 2006’s One Night With The King manages to look better than Son of God, simply because it was intended for theaters. It’s not a huge problem, but it does momentarily take you out of the film.
And that’s not a good thing because the movie’s other major fault is that it isn’t as emotionally engaging as one would hope it would be. Compare the aforementioned scene with Mary and Jesus to the similar one in Passion of The Christ and you’ll immediately see what I’m getting at. Son of God’s take on the episode is fine, even praiseworthy, but it carries none of the devastating emotional weight that Gibson’s version of the scene does. It’s almost impossible for any man or woman with a child of his own to watch that moment in Passion of The Christ without having to choke down sobs. Not so in Son of God. It’s not really the fault of the actors. Downey is acceptable as Mary, though she’s not given much to do in the movie except cry, and Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado is fine as Jesus, although he does appear oddly confused at times. It’s just that Christopher Spencer and his crew, all veterans of television documentaries, never seem to be able to bring the material to life. True to its roots, the movie feels like it belongs on TV comfortably sandwiched between other History Channel fare such as Bible Secrets Revealed and Joseph: The Silent Saint.
Still, even though Son of God is no artistic triumph, it’s a solid retelling of the life of Christ from his Birth to his Ascension that faithfully sticks to the source material. Given some of the more fanciful Bible-based movies headed our way later this year (Darren Aronofsky's Noah, Ridley Scott’s Exodus, the inexplicable remake of Left Behind starring Nicolas Cage), that alone earns the film some measure of good will. Son of God may never make it onto the Vatican’s list of great films, or anybody else’s for that matter, but it’ll do until something better comes along. And given Hollywood’s long history of churning out movies based on the Bible, rest assured that something will.
In a world he didn't create, in a time he didn't choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he's not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.