Jesus has been mostly missing in action on the big screen since Mel Gibson’s 2004 “The Passion of the Christ.” True, Gibson’s film grossed more than $600 million worldwide. But its fetishistic brutality and hints of anti-Semitism tainted its success and no one has since been inclined to make another gospel movie for wide release.
On TV, however, it’s been a different story. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the History Channel’s 2013 five-part opus “The Bible” averaged 11.7 million viewers per episode and then went on to be the biggest selling DVD of a miniseries. Tough numbers to pass up. So, with Christopher Spencer (whose previous credits include two episodes in the PBS “Nazi Mega Weapons” series) directing, the “Bible” people boiled the series down to feature length. Determined to avoid Gibson’s excesses, the condensed version, titled “Son of God,” tries to relay the messianic story plain and simple. It avoids the sadism of “Passion,” but can’t totally resist the old canard of the Christ-killing Jews. For the most part, though, the film maintains its low ambitions; it is mostly inoffensive, only occasionally ludicrous, and at times, at least for me, genuinely moving.
Since the film has a lot of backstory, it starts like “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” with a preface filling in what’s happened to this point. John the Evangelist (Sebastian Knapp) gets us up to speed. After muttering the “In the beginning was the word” opening of his own gospel, he flashes back to Genesis, offering a rapid montage of Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, the Nativity, until finally we see the full grown Messiah himself (Diogo Morgado, who looks like a bearded Brad Pitt), striding toward the Sea of Galilee, gathering apostles, spreading the word, flashing the bland, vaguely supercilious grin of someone who knows how the story turns out.
And so do we. Anyone with a Sunday School education can tick off the miracles, the proverbs, the sermons, and the clashes with hypocrites of the established religion as they occur on screen. As Jesus gets closer to Jerusalem, he starts getting into trouble, and so does the film. Led by a Fagin-like Caiaphas (Adrian Schiller), the Temple priests huddle in darkness and conspire to capture and condemn the usurper, and then manipulate the jaded Roman magistrate Pilate (Greg Hicks, in the film’s best performance) into doing their dirty work and crucifying him.
Is this much different from Gibson’s version? Fortunately, the subsequent Passion proves genuinely affecting. I found especially moving the scene in which the Romans enlist Simon of Cyrene (Idrissa Sisco) to help Christ carry the cross. And when Mary (Roma Downey) bears her dead son in her arms, it touches on the pathos of the Pieta.
But what should be the most profound moment of the film, the Resurrection, turns out to be the corniest. The cartoon Jesus is back, grinning more than ever, backed by a celestial glow, spinning out profundities with the breathy, warbling enunciation of a second-rate preacher. What does it say in Revelations 3:16 about the “lukewarm”? Neither hot nor cold, this “Son of God” is hard to swallow.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.