When we first meet the hero of Son of God, a kind of chintzy melodrama about the horrors of capital punishment, he’s approaching a fisherman with a classic boiler-room pitch: “Just give me an hour, and I will give you a whole new life,” Jesus (Diogo Morgado) promises Peter (Darwin Shaw), this messiah’s self-amused look and extra dimples suggesting the face of a different J.C.: Jim Carrey. Often, working a miracle, he looks as pleased as a professional magician dazzling with a trick.
Peter agrees to hear him out and is rewarded with a holy fish bounty. We never really hear the rest of what Jesus says to him, which is a shame. That 60-minute presentation would be a gift in comparison to this kid-traumatizing, 138-minute, nails-in-the-hands storybook, a movie that maybe should have been called The Greatest Story Ever Told Again and Again, Sometimes With Blood by the Bucket and Sometimes With Fabric Characters on a Cheery Felt Board. Instead the producers have opted for Son of God, which has a badass, Man of Steel kick to it. Rest assured, this heavens-to-Earth transplant doesn’t resort to snapping the neck of Judas in the final reel.
Instead, Son of God goes all in with the cheek-turning, the warmly defiant pacifism, the ministering to the wretched, the forgiveness of even the most detestable, evinced in this case by the nastiest piece of work there is according to this movie’s cosmology — tax collectors. Taxes get more screen time here than lepers, and the filmmakers present them as the age’s great evil, although they don’t quite claim that Jesus agrees. When he’s pressed on the subject of whether the Jews of Jerusalem should shell out their shekels to Rome, Jesus replies with the exceedingly subtle “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” bit. This sets the members of an anti-tax mob cheering, as if they’ve been vindicated. The movie — which otherwise underlines and Christ-splains everything, like a nervous Sunday school teacher — leaves it to you to figure out what exactly that much-debated edict is supposed to mean.
Compare that to the big moment when Jesus is asked if he’s truly declaring himself the Son of God, a claim the Gospels themselves never put directly in his mouth. “I am,” he replies, clearing that right up. (He also quotes the verses from Isaiah that predicted a messiah — this Jesus shows his work!) The only bit of nuance in the picture comes in the scenes of the Jews of the temple deciding the fate of this rebellious prophet they feel is challenging them. One of the graybeards keeps insisting No, wait, maybe we shouldn’t kill him. That’s a step forward from Mel Gibson’s take.
But Gibson’s barking mad The Passion of the Christ at least had vigor, vision, madness — something to say, even if that thing was just “more wounds!” and “Jews!’” Son of God is a narrative shambles, more thudding than thunderous, shot with no spirit or distinction, always feeling like a sprawling TV miniseries cut up to fit into theatrical running time. That’s no surprise, considering this is a distillation of The Bible, the basic-cable event from 2013. At the opening we see flashbacks, with voice-over, to the stories of Noah, Moses and Abraham — surely the first time the New Testament has kicked off with a “previously on …”
Scenes start and end halfway through. The only beatitude the movie has time for is heard over a Middle-earth–style hiking montage, and when Jesus teaches his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, the movie hustles to the next scene after he’s only gotten through the “trespasses” part. The cut is to the scene where Jesus schools the crowd eager to stone the adulteress, but Son of God joins it already in progress, not even bothering to suggest to audiences what she did to piss everybody off. “I’ll give my stone to the first man who can tell me that he has never sinned,” Jesus says, because the one thing this savior is willing to damn is the sharp poetry of the most familiar translations. Poor John the Baptist, meanwhile, appears only in a 15-second flashback after we hear that he’s been beheaded.
The filmmakers struggle to tailor their scenes to fit the specifics of biblical incident. Traitorous Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss (spoiler!), which is meant to signify to the Roman guardsmen just whom they should arrest — which suggests that at one time in history, Jesus was thought to be in appearance essentially indistinguishable from his pauper followers. The movie Jesus, of course, is always resplendent in his freshly ironed robes, his finely trimmed beard and his professionally styled hair, all of which distinguish him from his grimy disciples. Why, then, must Judas point him out? All he really had to say was, “When you see a group of 13 mixed-race dudes, grab the whitest one.”
In form, this haphazard assemblage of scenes actually suggests the one-thing-after-another looseness of the Gospels. There are concessions to Hollywood storytelling: the introduction early on of Pilate (Greg Hicks) as a villain whose ass would be stomped by any other movie hero; shock-cut flash-forwards to bloody Jesus yowling in pain; tension-juicing sequences of stabbings and combat training; hilarious expositional dialogue such as, “He has a big following in Galilee”; the way Jesus’ promise that “I am coming soon” at the ending (spoiler!) sounds like the threat of a sequel.
The last third of the movie works better, as Morgado suffers with suitable abjectness. Torture and flesh-nailing can’t help but stir a response, and the film finally moves with some clarity from one scene to the next. But this is more a pageant than a story about characters and their motivations; it’s as brusque in its storytelling as an illustrated children’s Bible, which would at least offer some mystery and grandeur in the composition of its images. Here, establishing Jerusalem looks like it was whipped up in Minecraft.