‘Their empire, his kingdom” is the tagline for Son of God, the new movie depicting Jesus’ life from his birth to his ascension. It captures the film’s central dramatic action: Jesus and the kingdom he preaches present a threat to Caiaphas, the high priest struggling to ensure the continued existence of the Jewish people under Roman rule, and to Pontius Pilate, the jaded and casually cruel prefect who can guarantee his own preservation only by ruthlessly oppressing the restive provincials of Judea.
Roma Downey, herself a Christian, produced Son of God with her husband, reality-TV producer Mark Burnett. It grew out of the filming of Downey and Burnett’s hit History Channel miniseries The Bible, which aired last year to 13 million viewers. The film opens with the first words of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John the Evangelist, the aged apostle, provides the voiceover from his exile; he supplements the Biblical text with an explanation that this is the same Word who was present in all of salvation history (cue a montage, from The Bible, of Noah’s ark, Abraham, and Moses and the burning bush).
Diogo Morgado, the Portuguese actor who plays Jesus, began his career as a model and then starred in telenovelas, and it shows. His performance in The Bible last year inspired the Twitter hashtag #hotjesus, and his Jesus is a gentle bearded Adonis, who looks with a soft smile and piercing eyes upon the crowds of people who pursue him around the Sea of Galilee. (Downey herself plays Mary, Jesus’ mother, though she would have done better to choose someone else who looks the part of a middle-aged Jewish woman from Biblical Israel, not Beverly Hills.) The film itself has a bit of a gauzy telenovela feel to it — granted, with a much higher production value. Whereas the old Biblical epics of the 50s and 60s had a certain sweeping Technicolor majesty to them, this one relies on lingering shots of the awed or angered faces of Jesus’ disciples and enemies to deliver the import of events. Simon the Pharisee has several tangles with Jesus in which he deploys his smoldering “That’s blasphemy!” look in response to whatever miracle or parable Jesus has just antagonized him with.
Though the movie is mostly faithful to the Gospels, there are a few cringeworthy embellishments: Jesus tells Peter at the outset that together they’re going to “change the world,” and before the entrance to Jerusalem, Peter exhorts the other disciples that it’s time to take their message “right to the heart of power.” There are also a few lines pregnant with heavy-handed dramatic irony from people dismissing Jesus as someone who will be quickly forgotten once he’s gone.
While the first half of the film, which glides over the main events of Jesus’ public ministry, can feel schmaltzy, the depiction of the Passion does not. Perhaps this is because there is something inherent in the accounts of Jesus’ suffering and death that makes it fit for dramatization and vicarious participation. At any rate, the Passion in Son of God is bloody and viscerally affecting, and it’s impossible to be unmoved by it.
Downey told the Philadelphia Daily News that she and her husband took pains to set the historical scene accurately and depict the antagonists as multidimensional. But in any attempt to dramatize the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ life, there is the challenge not just of presenting the narrative of his incarnation, ministry, and death but of pointing toward their significance. The film falls short of the latter, admittedly difficult, aim, but that’s what the book’s for.
— Katherine Connell is an associate editor at National Review.