Son of God
Posted February 28, 2014 by Daniel Hodgson in
The life of Jesus of Nazareth is a great story. But a great story and great storytelling are two different things. Son of God is not great storytelling, nor is it great filmmaking. Sadly, it’s mediocre in both respects.
As an adaptation of The Holy Bible, the movie paints itself into a no-win situation. On the one hand, it assumes deep familiarity with the Bible. Take for example the following scene: Jesus (Diogo Morgado) and his Apostles learn that John the Baptist has been killed at the hands of the Romans. Jesus then takes a moment to reflect on the loss of his teacher. However, up until then, John had never been introduced to us as a character in the story, so unless you know your Bible, you cannot empathize with the loss Jesus experiences. This isn’t dramatization, or even documentation—John’s death isn’t shown at all.
At the same time, the screenwriters of Son of God take liberties with the source material, changing details of the story. I screened the film with a friend of mine who knows her Bible. After the credits rolled, she went on a five minute tirade about what did and did not happen according to Scripture. I offer that the screenwriters are allowed, in this case, limited dramatic license, but they can’t have it both ways; they can’t assume familiarity with the source material and then change significant details of the story. The approach incenses the target audience while at the same time alienating newcomers.
As filmmaking, Son of God is shoddy, looking like a TV movie, rather than the big screen epic it touts itself as. CGI exteriors of ancient cities are of shockingly poor quality, and are not worthy of a theatrical release. Like any other movie, there is a need for a production to give the audience its money’s worth, especially when the source material is as important as this.
It’s no accident that the film looks the way it does. Son of God is an edited version of the History Channel’s ten hour miniseries The Bible, cut down to about 2 hours and 20 minutes. As it was originally intended for television screens at home, the movie is shot largely in close-up of faces, as the full human figure looks too small on the small screen. On the big screen, however, the frame looks too empty too often (and with little context as to who is standing where and in relation to whom), and the potency and intimacy of the close-up is diminished with overuse. (Of course, The Passion of Joan of Arc was shot almost entirely in close-up, and that was a great film. However, Falconetti’s tormented face filled the screen in a way that it cannot in Son of God, which uses a much wider aspect ratio.)
I was surprised at how poor the direction and acting choices were. Line readings are artificial and overly-theatrical, as dramatic pauses in line readings are…used…much…too often, and are also much……….too long. Furthermore, bad guys act like bad guys, setting a melodramatic tone (hammered in by a heavy-handed score) which undermines the entire point of the story; Jesus’ persecutors were not “bad guys,” but ordinary people who mistakenly believed they were doing the right thing—they knew not what they did, and they were forgiven.
The sheer ineptitude of the way this film is put together is staggering. Son of God leans on the score to segue through unrelated scenes, yet it lacks the visual lyricism of a montage. For much of the running time, the film merely rips speeches straight from the New Testament, barely linking one scene to the next in a causative sense. Awkward fade-to-blacks bring the action to a screeching halt (likely marking where commercial breaks would have been), yet the film hurdles from scene to scene, resulting in jerky pacing; a scene of Jews rioting against their Roman oppressors isn’t nearly as long as it needs to be for its dramatic aftermath. Other than an occasionally inspired lighting design and impressive cinematography towards the end, most of Son of God has so little artistic merit that it’s a borderline cash grab.
Son of God only partially redeems itself in the third act, when Jesus is betrayed and captured. Only then does the film express itself, morbidly fascinated with the agony of what Jesus endured. Much like The Passion of the Christ, Son of God is more interested in how Jesus died than by how Jesus lived. Now, I’m sure some parents will want to take their children to the film as part of their upbringing, but take note: it graphically depicts an innocent man being beaten and whipped, and shows his lacerated back covered in blood. Then, he is crucified. It’s horrific, and according to the MPAA, parental guidance is strongly suggested, but not required. But I digress.
Whether one is a believer or not, it’s a great story about a man who believes in mankind with such passion that he is willing to sacrifice his life for it. But a great story deserves to be told well, especially this one, just like in any other film. With the exception of Peter (Darwin Shaw), Son of God barely—if at all—delineates the personalities of the Disciples, nor does it develop the relationship between Jesus and his mother (Roma Downey), who figures prominently in crucifixion scenes, or between himself and Judas (Joe Wredden), who in this film is not so much a character as a plot device. (Compare this to Harvey Keitel’s character in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, which developed both his character and his relationship to Jesus.) The only reason I knew who Mary Magdalene (Amber Rose Revah) was was because of my cursory knowledge of the Bible; Son of God can’t be bothered to introduce her as a character, and explain how she met Jesus and why she as an individual became a follower—the film is too busy preaching to convey a plot.