Jesus film ditches Satan, courts Jews
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Jesus film ditches Satan, courts Jews

'The Son of God' to open February 28 after editing out an Obama lookalike character and getting some guidance from Jewish clergy

Debra writes for the JTA, and is a former features writer for The Times of Israel.

The role of  Satan was scrubbed from 'The Son of God' after allegations of a resemblance to US President Barack Obama (screen capture: YouTube/CNN channel)
The role of Satan was scrubbed from 'The Son of God' after allegations of a resemblance to US President Barack Obama (screen capture: YouTube/CNN channel)

It’s not Easter yet in Hollywood, but Jesus is nevertheless getting resurrected, splashing back onto the silver screen on February 28 in “Son of God,” the first of several Bible-themed blockbuster films set to be unveiled in 2014.

Before the opening credits can roll, however, “Son of God’s” husband-and-wife producers, Mark Burnett and actress Roma Downey, have taken pains to avoid any potential controversy or upset, especially among two key communities: American Democrats and Jews. That meant cutting out one character entirely and doing a great deal of Jewish outreach and research to avoid ruffling Semitic feathers.

“Son of God” is a 20th Century Fox production that is essentially a condensed version of Burnett and Downey’s wildly successful 2013 TV History Channel miniseries “The Bible.” That 10-hour television event made waves in the blogosphere last year when online commentators noticed a nearly uncanny physical similarity between the actor playing Satan, Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni, and US President Barack Obama.

So much Internet focus was put on Obama’s devilish doppelganger, Downey told, that she was truly upset.

“It was all over TV and all over the Internet and that next day, when I was sure everyone would be talking about Jesus, they were all talking about Satan instead,” Downey, who stars as Mary in both the miniseries and the full-length film, is quoted as saying. “I was saddened. It was really disappointing, because it became such a distraction and then it became ugly and people were making such nasty statements.”

This time around, Ouazanni’s character has been entirely eliminated in “Son of God,” with Downey telling The Hollywood Reporter, “I wanted all of the focus to be on Jesus. I want his name to be on the lips of everyone who sees this movie, so we cast Satan out. It gives me great pleasure to tell you that the devil is on the cutting-room floor.”

Another issue that is as prickly as a crown of thorns? The film’s reception among Jewish audiences, who were none too pleased at the last mega-Jesus blockbuster, “Passion of the Christ,” and attacked that film with allegations of anti-Semitism and hate-mongering.

Burnett says that he and his production team conducted extensive market research and asked for help from the religious community to make sure their film struck the right tone and wouldn’t upset Jewish audiences in any way.

“We had a massive responsibility in making this film, and we enlisted the help of over 40 academics and church leaders across all faiths, including rabbis, Catholic leaders, Protestant leaders, to make sure that we were faithful to the text and considerate and respectful across faith,” Burnett told ABC news.

Should “Son of God” garner the massive ticket sales that producers and Christian leaders hope it will, it will bode well for the slew of other Bible-themed films ready for release in 2014. In March, Darren Aronovsky’s star-packed “Noah” will hit the big screen, followed by Sir Ridley Scott’s “Exodus,” due out in August, and “Mary, Mother of Christ,” starring 16-year-old Israeli ingénue Odeya Rush in the title role, arriving just in time for Christmas.

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