Mel Gibson’s 2004 The Passion of the Christ created controversy among the critics and enjoyed overwhelming audience support. A decade later another feature-length movie about Christ has seen wide studio release, namely this year’s Son of God. The movie stars Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado and is co-produced by Roma Downey, best known for her role in the TV series “Touched by an Angel.” Downey also plays Mary in the film whose release was timed to ride the crest of this year’s Lenten season—as the Gibson film did 10 years ago.
This is just about where comparisons between the two latest Jesus movies begins and ends—unless one wants to count the numerous ways in which Son of God copies from The Passion. As Gibson “stole” from Anne Catherine Emmerich, Son of God steals from Gibson. Despite the critics’ dislike for the Gibson movie—his treatment of the Christ-story was ground-breaking, creative, bold, daring, new and innovative—nothing like it had ever hit the screen before. It is a great film. This can not be said of Son of God.
But the question is—is Son of God even a good movie? If one takes seriously the dismal 28 percent favorable reviews calculated on the premier movie reviews website Rotten Tomatoes, the answer must be “No.”
I am convinced that a Jesus movie, unless made by iconoclasts like Scorsese, will not be given fair treatment by major film reviewers who tend to be secular-minded—perhaps even anti-Christian. Even The Passion only managed a ridiculous 49 percent! Compare this to the certainly irreverent, arguably blasphemous The Last Temptation of Christ. It is not cinematically superior to The Passion—yet it achieved a whopping 83 percent favorable rating!
Is the mere 28 percent for Son of God in any way justified? I know that the majority of dedicated Christians really believe the answer should be and want it to be ‘No” and expect a Christian reviewer such as myself to exercise a kind of cultural duty to defend Christian films since so few ever see the light of day from anti-Catholic Hollywood. But this I cannot do.
Some critics fault the Son of God for being a film made for believers, aimed at the choir, and faith-based—but these are not real reasons by which to judge the merit of a film. The problem with Son of God is its lack of cinematic originality and its complete lack of subtlety in its approach to the person of Christ. He is from the get-go the confident, charming, and horridly handsome miracle-worker in which nearly everything pronounced by Morgado is said in a declaratory tone, proclaimed for its pious effect on those gathered about him. For most of the movie Jesus is a kind of animated, engaging, very attractive holy card. This Christ is only what is expected with few new insights to take an audience deeper into the mystery of redemption and the drama of salvation.
The movie rises to another level beginning with the Last Supper scene. Here Christ becomes more real, more authentically human. The pious proclamation of doctrines gives way as he now speaks to his apostles as if having a real conversation. Perhaps the intimacy of the Upper Room lends itself to this more personal, less stagy, less piously self-aware dramatization. Indeed, the entire passion episode was the best part of the film—oddly when Christ was not publicly preaching or performing any miracles! I give credit to Morgado for making me believe that Christ was indeed in pain as when the crown of thorns was thrust on his head. The holy card Jesus was gone—and the real, rejected Jesus was there—only to have the holy card Jesus return in the post resurrection scenes, complete with a see-though hole in his hand accompanied by stirring music.
The movie however was not without a few well done, even theologically significant scenes. I name three. When Judas leaves the Last Supper on his way to the Sanhedrin he walks on a dark, deserted street. Suddenly he is bent over with nausea and vomits out the Eucharist he had just received. Even Gibson didn’t come up with that one! The Judas who betrays Christ has literally rejected the Body of Christ.
The second insightful scene is Christ in Gethsemane. He prays that the Father’s will be done. The scene moves to the high priest Caiaphas and the elders praying to the same God about the very same thing but from a very different motivation and for a very different purpose.
The last creative scene: Christ is on the Cross, his flesh torn, covered in blood and full of agony. The film cuts to Pilate, lying face down while his flesh is cared for and pampered in the Roman equivalent of a salon. The one man, the spoiled, indulgent, cruelly indifferent Pilate who sent Christ to the cross is in striking contrast to the man suffering the pain of the cross, one of the truly creative cinematic moments in this film.
From a Catholic point of view certain scenes were certainly disappointing—perhaps given a more Protestant interpretation. For instance, in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus Jesus says that one needs to be born again “in the spirit”—not though the sacramentally focused and biblically faithful “water and the spirit.”
Jesus performs the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fish—but only offers a spontaneous prayer of thanksgiving to the Father. The Eucharistic words and gestures—that he took the loaves, broke them, gave them, were completely missing.
Later Son of God tries to make a connection between Christ and the Eucharist. When Peter visits the tomb and realizes that Christ is alive and still with his followers he rushes to the Upper Room and asks for bread and wine whereupon he performs the ritual of the Last Supper. The audience is led to make the connection that this meal is in some manner related to the presence of Christ. However, Peter’s post-resurrection realization, drawing the Eucharist and Christ together, suffers from the movie never having sufficiently focused on the sacramental nature of the Last Supper to begin with. Thus the scene comes off hasty, clumsy, and underdeveloped.
Son of God while portraying Mary as much crying, mourning and wearing an obvious Marian blue—depicts Jesus’ mother actively involved in the salvific acts of her Son, a co-redemptrix theme. But here one can accuse the movie of Gibson-stealing. Just as in The Passion, Mary observes the scourging, Jesus knows she is there, and on the way of the cross she assists Christ, even helping him lift the cross in a scene very reminiscent of a climactic moment in the Gibson film. What Gibson pulled off superbly, this movie handles only in the most superficial way.
Finally, for all of the movie’s safe, conventional rendering of the Jesus story, there is one way Son of God, actually attempts to be revisionist. Some woman named Mary is in the constant company of the Twelve. Is the viewer just supposed to assume that this is Mary Magdalene? There is absolutely no back story to this character. She’s just there from the beginning of the call of the apostles all the way to the great commissioning towards the end of the movie. Now one might argue that most of the apostles are just there too. However, they have a back story called the Bible. Even those less acquainted with the Jesus story know that the twelve apostles were all men. There is no question that the filmmakers were making a statement that women are equally called to exercise the same apostolic authority as males. This Mary—whoever she is—was even there in the garden of Gethsemane. Christ’s inner circle was not Peter, James and John, but Peter, John and Mary. As a theologian who has written extensively on the role of women in the Church, this depiction of Mary as one of the apostles came off as contrived, artificial, historically and theologically false and just plain annoying.
There are dozens of theologically, biblically valid ways of showing the necessary role of women in redemption, but Son of God manipulated the Jesus story to pander to a politically correct ideology.
Is Son of God a good movie about Jesus or should we look for another? I am glad that the movie is out there, and I am glad that, in contrast to its negative reviews, audiences like the movie and are going to see it. I am glad, even grateful, that this movie does indeed treat Christ as the Son of God. But while believers can be grateful for this pious faith statement, as cinematic art it is an unremarkable movie and we should hope for something better.