A Compelling Watch

According to “The Christian Post” Hollywood has declared 2014 “Year of the Bible.” Biblical films are making a comeback en mass; firstly with the Son of God that opened on February 28th. Secondly, Darren Aronofsky’s mildly controversial Noah (Russell Crowe) opens on March 28th and Exodus (starring Christian Bale) follows up the rear with a December release. This may seem astounding in an age when the CGI-driven science fiction blockbuster seems to rule the theater. But it’s nothing new; Hollywood has been dabbling in the biblical arena since its earlier days with many of its biggest stars in such epics as The Ten Commandments (1956 Charlton Heston), The Robe (1953 Richard Burton) The Silver Chalice (1952 Paul Newman) to name a few.
Last year Mark Burnett (Survivor, Shark Tank, The Voice) and Roma Downey (Touched by an Angel) launched The Bible miniseries on the History Channel to historic ratings against time slot giants The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. By its dramatic conclusion 100 million viewers had watched and three Emmy nominations followed for best miniseries. With their clear win formula the British husband and wife team redeployed their hit to the big screen last week staggering the film community again with a $26 million box office draw. The Burnett/Downey team unapologetically geared their film towards a faith based market. Mega churches around the country shouted its praises while buying out theaters for their flocks – a sharp contrast to the firestorm ten years ago surrounding Passion of the Christ
Son of God tells the story from the perspective of the last living Apostle, John exiled on the Island of Patmos as he reminisces about his younger days as a follower of Jesus. It opens with a time capsule of the Old Testament patriarchs as a backdrop to the advent, then sweeps the audience into the life of Jesus from his birth to resurrection.  The film felt like an ‘antidote’ to the Mel Gibson production in its sensitive portrayal of the events of Jesus’ life. Co-producer Downey even admitted “Casting Satan out of the story” after comparisons were made during the miniseries on the actor’s resemblance to President Barak Obama. The results? A tender retelling of the biblical account in 21st century language that brings the person of Jesus to a new audience. The Burnett/Downey team stayed largely true to the scriptural version with a sprinkling of artistic license here and there to move the storyline along. While many diehard theologians often take issue to Hollywood inserting unknown events into a biblical story, I enjoy those parts because, when imaginatively done, it breathes life into otherwise unknown moments that could have happened. Part of the intrigue of bible films is seeing how each director reveals shades of the story previously not done, which is certainly the case in Son of God.
In some places the picture felt a little rushed, but these were probably edited moments from the small screen version. After all, they had to squeeze the miniseries episodes into two theater-worthy hours. (Disclaimer; I did not see the television miniseries) This 20th Century Fox release filmed in Morocco was produced for $22 million (a bargain basement epic by Hollywood standards). But, the production values were state-of-the-art, with lavish costumes and sets, and possessing enough epic grandiosity to make Cecil B. DeMille stand up and take notice.
Portuguese born actor Diogo Morgado played the title role of Jesus. He did well with his portrayal; playing Jesus part strong, part humble, yet with a warm, approachable feel. Let’s face it – what mortal could possibly portray this part and satisfy all? Depicting Jesus has always come with its own unique brand of criticism and controversy. But Morgado held his own in the role, and has endured a fair share of criticism from those disdaining him as too good looking for the part. For me it was a moot point since no one knows what Jesus actually looked like and Morgado’s performance was credible enough for me to forget I was watching an actor in a part. When asked about preparing for his breakout American role Morgado said, “I was in a panic, because I knew the responsibility…I prayed…I went to Jerusalem and felt the importance of the story.”

English actor Greg Hicks (Snow White and the Huntsman) played a weary Pontius Pilate tired of the Jews' religious problems, torn between orders from Rome and the premonitions of his wife. Roma Downey stepped back into the limelight as the mother of Jesus. All the other actors (mostly British) gave respectable performances in their supporting roles. Oscar winning composer Hans Zimmer (Pirates of the Caribbean) combined with Lisa Gerrard (Gladiator) to deliver a hauntingly beautiful musical score capturing the emotion of the story.
Son of God is a compelling account of the life and ministry of Jesus; part political thriller, part spiritual journey, part love story that brings the audience into close proximity to the man that Jesus was. And, although served up with a healthy dollop of gentle evangelical fervor, I felt it was captivating enough to be palatable to the unbeliever. In a movie industry often inundated with cinematic fluff and brain twinkie plots the Son of God has proven again there's still room at the Hollywood table for biblically based films with box office clout.

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