SON OF GOD. Starring Diogo Morgado, Roma Downey, Greg Hicks, Simon Kunz. Directed by Christopher Spencer. Rated M (Violence). 138 minutes.
Son of God has been edited for cinema release around the world from the 2013 mini-series, The Bible. In this miniseries, there were five episodes focusing on the gospel stories, a total of 200 minutes in all. An hour has been taken out of the mini-series. In the 1970s, Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth was a miniseries that ran for more than seven hours and was also edited for cinema release to 135 minutes. Both films look very good on the big screen.
The film opens with the apostle, John, in old age in exile on the island of Patmos. He quotes the prologue to the gospel and what we see is a brief collage of the key Old Testament stories, taken from the miniseries. Then, at the end, there is a return to Patmos and John, reflecting on his experience, sees the risen Lord and he and Jesus speaks some quotations from the Book of Revelation.
One of the questions facing Christian audiences is whether they want to see yet another Jesus film or whether they have strong memories of previous films, of Pasolini, of Zeffirelli, of the 1999 Jesus with Jeremy Sisto or The Passion of the Christ. Another question is how literally the audience wants to understand some of the episodes, especially the miracles of Jesus as well as the Infancy Narratives. In this version, they are presented fairly literally – with the touch of special effects for Jesus walking on the water and the miraculous basket of multiplied fishes, the healing of Malchus’ ear and the rending of the Temple at the time of Jesus’ death.
There is, of course, a problem in the selection of episodes and because this version has only 45 minutes before the Palm Sunday procession, the selection is particularly limited. In the synopsis for the television version, there is mention of the temptations in the desert and the baptism of Jesus but these do not appear, except for a glimpse of the baptism during the final credits. There is no Cana miracle, very few parables (The Pharisee and the Public and The Mustard Seed only), comparatively few of the many encounters of Jesus. Pilate does not say “Here is the man” and Jesus does not urge Mary Magdalene to let go of him after the resurrection.
There are several miracles, including that of the paralytic let down through the roof as well as the raising of Lazarus and the healing of Malchus in Gethsemane.
When we see a gospel film, we have our own image of Jesus which may not go well with the actor, his appearance, his screen presence, his speaking voice. In this film is an actor, born in Portugal, age 32 while making the film, Diogo Morgado, who actually looks younger than 32 and has the touch of a healthy Californian surfie, which may or may not detract from his impact. Without the baptism and temptation sequence, Jesus immediately strides into Capernaum, encounters Peter and immediately goes out on the boat with him for the large catch a fish and his promise that Peter will have a new life. There are some reminders of Jeffrey Hunter, his appearance and speaking in 1961’s King of King’s, sometimes stilted, but Diogo Morgado does have more vitality. But, for much of the film, he has to suffer, undergo the passion and the crucifixion.
While Mary appears briefly in a sequence with the Magi, again very literally, she reappears for the Passion, watching the scourging with Mary Magdalene, aghast at the appearance of Jesus and his wounds, hurrying to him on the way of the cross with a special encounter with him as he falls to the ground. There are not so many people at the foot of the cross and she comes very close, hearing Jesus commit her to John and John to her. There is a touching Pieta with Mary Magdalene looking on and John removing the crown of thorns. While she is absent from the Upper Room and the Ascension sequence, there is a final song over the credits dedicated to her.
The other important thing about watching a Jesus film is comparing our memories of the texts and our imagining of particular episodes with what we see on screen. If a gospel film works well, there will be many ah- ha moments when we see or hear something which has not occurred to us before.
And that is one of the values of seeing this film.
Making a list of moments noticed, there is Jesus preaching the parable of the mustard seed when interrupted by the paralysed man lowered down through the roof – and Jesus affectionate kiss after healing him. In the version of John 8 and the woman taken in adultery, Jesus has a stone and challenges anyone who has not sinned to take his stone to throw choose to. When the Pharisees are denouncing the tax collectors, especially Matthew, Jesus compassionately tells the story of The Pharisee and the Publican, looking towards Matthew who begins to weep – and finishes the parable for Jesus.
But most of the nuances come from the Passion narrative. At this point it might be well to note the influence of Mel Gibson because the Passion here has many Passion of the Christ moments, especially the scourging and the lifting up of the cross. When Jesus comes into Jerusalem on the donkey, the high priest actually quotes the prophecy from Zechariah which indicates the arrival of the Messiah. Caiaphas speaks ironically and is willing one man to die for the sake of the nation. The treatment of Judas is very interesting, with very little background, but the screenplay shows him cautious at Jesus entry into Jerusalem, suggesting to Malchus that he might be able to help, and later persuaded by Caiaphas that all he wants to do is to bring Jesus to him for a private meeting, no indication of the trial or crucifixion, though Judas is not about asking for a benefit and then flinging it back in public to Malchus and the Pharisees. The scene of his death is far more familiar.
The Last Supper is a quieter affair, with a strong emphasis on the pitta bread and the cup of wine, highlighting the symbolic presence. Unfortunately, there is no washing of the feet. but one interesting aspect is that after Judas receives the bread and is advised by Jesus to go out, he starts to choke and spits out the bread in the street.
The trials of Jesus before Annas and Caiaphas are comparatively small with few people present. A key presence, however, is that of Nicodemus who had been observing Jesus, urging Caiaphas to be careful and cautious, but going to visit Jesus just before the passion and hearing him speak about being reborn. Nicodemus is present at the trials but does not vote for Jesus’ death. After Jesus death, and in the anointing and burial, he recites a prayer in Hebrew.
There has been a build-up to the presence of Pilate, a rough and ready Governor, cruel in getting the soldiers to remove a cart which kills a little boy. And his wife, Claudia, is wary of the condemnation of Jesus. As in the Gospels, there is the offer of freedom for Jesus or Barabbas. Barabbas has also appeared earlier, listening to Jesus and observing him encounter the Pharisees in rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s…, and the sequences where Caiaphas and the priests confront Pilate and the crowd frenzy demands Jesus crucifixion. These sequences are well done and are particularly strong.
As Jesus goes towards his cross, he runs his hand over it and, seemingly in veneration, kisses it. When Jesus is dying, there are several scenes in the Temple with the high priest of the Passover lambs being slaughtered.
Mary Magdalene, who is presented as an ordinary disciple with no overtones of a sinner, is presented strongly at the crucifixion and at the resurrection, although Jesus’ appearance near the tomb is rather fuzzy, though the hole in his hand for Thomas’s benefit and for the final blessing is very distinctive. One of the interesting touches is that Peter, on the news of Jesus being risen, invites all those in the upper room to take the bread and wine in a Eucharistic celebration. And when Peter, ashamed of his denial and thinking he could not be forgiven, sees Jesus come into the upper room, Jesus put his hand on his head in a sign of blessing and forgiveness.
The scene of the Ascension is not so well done, a tableau of scattered disciples watching Jesus leave.
One of the blurbs chosen for marketing this film states that this is the best Jesus film and there will never be a better one. Obviously, that is not true, and the hyperbole does little good for the reputation of the film which, with its various limitations, is a sincere effort and will probably make an impact on many viewers.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out 22nd May 2014.