In the contemporary, post–Charlton Heston era, Mel Gibson may have reopened the floodgates of Biblical cinema with 2004’s The Passion of the Christ, which, for all the controversial hubbub distracting from the thing itself, was quite a powerful and artfully made film, bringing an unusually serious approach to one of the best-known stories ever told. Son of God — an overly abridged, Cliff Notes–style accounting of the life of Jesus — isn’t on that Gibson-ian level, in terms of quality or wrenching violence, but it manages to bring the Jesus story to the big screen with some sensory vitality and storytelling verve. It is, after all, a cinematic saga.
A big-screen/small-scale edition of the History Channel’s miniseries The Bible, the movie’s two-plus hour expanse can seem like a rather breezy and dizzying tableau of New Testament highlights rather than a cohesive “biopic,” although blessed with moving passages. There is Jesus, delivering the Sermon on the Mount, expanding the bounty of fishes and loaves, walking on water, trashing the money-changers in the temple, and paying the price of his “heresy”: Enter “the Passion” and his martyrdom path to the Crucifixion, and resurrection.
This story is nothing new to Western civilization, however inactive the role of religion in American society has become. The life of Christ, along with his teachings, has been treated in many media over the millennia; in painting and endless readings and revisions of the Bible. Somehow, though, in the populist and memory-loaded forum of film, the narrative runs into some irritating pop-culture shallows, including scenes unintentionally reminiscent of Monty Python’s Life of Brian (e.g., the “welease Woderwick!” scene). There, in the lead role, is our male-model Jesus, played by the distinctly non-Jewish-looking Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado, more attractive than any of his disciples or foes in the Jewish and Roman quarters in Jerusalem. The overweening Hans Zimmer music score gushes its way over the scenery, and the cheesy digital model of the city of Jerusalem keeps reminding us that this is only a “not entirely ready for prime time” movie, albeit a well-meaning one.