Film review

The smirking trouble with new Jesus film ‘Son of God’

Opening Friday, the movie may have the approval of the ADL, but it left this reviewer more than a little uneasy

Jesus takes a stroll in 'Son of God' (20th Century Fox)
Jesus takes a stroll in 'Son of God' (20th Century Fox)

NEW YORK — Everyone’s favorite Jewish carpenter is back, once again, for his cinematic close-up. “Son of God,” a side-project of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, producers of the wildly popular mini-series “The Bible,” opens in theaters this weekend and, if past similar projects are any indicator, the faithful will flock to see it.

As a critic, I came to the movie with two questions: Is this a good movie and, naturally, is this Good For The Jews?

The answer to the first question is undeniably no. “Hell, no!” might actually be more accurate.

The answer to the second question is also ultimately a no, though it isn’t for lack of trying. Yes, bored kids nod off as a tefilin-wrapped rabbi davens and then leap to their feet and shout “Jesus!” when the cool, hip, longhaired prophet (played by “Hot Jesus” Diogo Morgado) strides along. But this is fairly benign.

In the first ninety minutes, the movie seems to go out of its way to avoid the pitfalls of Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” which featured, in between lengthy scenes of torture, a panoply of hook-nosed Yids straight out of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Indeed, “Son of God” is at its most interesting when it deviates from rushing through the New Testament’s Greatest Hits (a loaves & fishes here, a “cast the first stone” there) and tries to imagine the political situation in Jerusalem under Roman rule. For much of the movie the high priest Caiaphas, long hissed at in Passion Plays throughout history, is cast in a somewhat friendly light. There’s a poignant moment – quite possibly the only artful scene in the whole film – which intercuts Jesus’ agonized prayers at Gesthemene with Caiaphas and company in a similar plea for divine guidance at the Temple. (Because three is a nice number, Pontius Pilate’s wife, who has had visions of Jesus in a dream, prays to the Roman gods as well.) For a brief moment, Sympathy For Caiaphas seems the unlikely tune.

‘Son of God’ is at its most interesting when it deviates from rushing through the New Testament’s Greatest Hits (a loaves & fishes here, a ‘cast the first stone’ there)

For this first part of the move, the Jews are shown to be a tough spot – pushed around by the Romans and forced to deal with pesky agitators in their own community. One of them is the nasty looking Barabbas. With a bald head and scarred face he’s seen ranting about taxation like the angriest of the Occupy Wall Street set. (The other Bible movies – and I’ve seen them all – usually position Barabbas as just a mere thief. However, the Gospel According to John does refer to him as a “bandit,” which was a term also used for “revolutionary,” so we’ll let that slide.) Caiaphas is more like Mayor Carcetti on “The Wire” — a little bit corrupt, sure, but somewhere down there wants to do good, or at least just wants things to go easy, but is subject to other, more powerful forces.

When Jesus comes to town on the back of a donkey (with about ten extras cheering him on – this movie is CHEAP), Caiaphas makes a tough call. If he doesn’t do something about this new rabble-rouser the Romans are going to come down on the Jews hard. He gives Jesus an opportunity to back off, but Jesus faces Caiaphas down and in the way that will do the most damage – he claims to be the son of God.

So, here’s the part where this stops being just a movie and starts to involve peoples’ beliefs. If you’ve never heard of Jesus before you are possibly going to be on Caiaphas’ side here. This guy claims to be the son of God, but he knows that saying so is going to make everyone crazy (and is so blasphemous that it is punishable by death). Believers will be cheering him on. Anyone who wants to maintain peace and order will think “what is WITH this guy?”

'Son of God' gets interesting when it deviates from the New Testament's Greatest Hits. In this scene, the Last Supper. (20th Century Fox)
‘Son of God’ gets interesting when it deviates from the New Testament’s Greatest Hits. In this scene, the Last Supper. (20th Century Fox)

We’ve seen him do a few miracles. He made fish appear in Peter’s net, he walked on water, he raised Lazarus from the dead and… he made more fish appear when there were a lot of assembled people who forgot to pack a lunch.

However – and this is absolutely a failure on the film’s part – there’s nothing in the movie that explains just what “following me” will bring. Also, absolutely nothing about the interior life about the man who claims to be divine. He just smiles and spouts catchphrases, “he who lives by the sword” and others.

He gets people to walk off their jobs (Matthew had a good gig lending money – now what?), then the gang are shown walking around cliffs and rocks. The music swells and the zooms from helicopter positions look like a ’90s rock video, but, unless you are already on board with Jesus, unless you come to this movie as an informed believer, you will sit there going “and? and?”

The engine that drives this movie is an inside story. It is, and I don’t mean this in a nasty way, an exploitation film. It’s by church people for church people. Which is completely strange because the stated objective of the producers is to bring more people to the faith. And stranger still because, last I checked, Christianity was very popular and you’d think this audience would demand something a little better.

As a movie, “Son of God” is a disaster. The acting is wretched, the camerawork is lazy, the cutting is hamfisted and the screenplay is a mess. It is both an abridged version of the mini-series and previous unseen footage. An example: we don’t hear anything about John the Baptist until someone shouts at Jesus, “your friend John the Baptist is dead!” We cut to Jesus looking sad. There’s a flash to a man with dreadlocks dunking Jesus in water. And that’s it. No context, no nothing.

As a movie, 'Son of God' is wretched. As a missionary tool? Perhaps worse. (20th Century Fox)
As a movie, ‘Son of God’ is wretched. As a missionary tool? Perhaps worse. (20th Century Fox)

Newcomers to the Greatest Story Ever Told may be mystified by scenes like this, but one thing will be made abundantly clear – Caiaphas and his cabal of Jews were real jerks. Once they decided to dispense with Jesus they were ruthless about it. The moment when the crowd petitions Pilate to release Barabbas is revealed to have been a total set-up. They papered the house, keeping followers of Jesus outside of the town square (a really small and cheap and fake looking town square, by the way) to make sure that when Pilate asks for the name of a prisoner to spare, no one suggests Jesus.

As Barabbas is released a pained Mary Magdalene shrieks “Jesus!” at the top of her voice. As we hear this we cut to Caiaphas, his head covered in Rabbinical-looking robes, laughing. Pilate, disgusted, asks the crowd “you choose a MURDERER?” None of the assembled speaks up for Jesus.

This is not, as they say, Good For The Jews.

Now, maybe it happened this way. What do I know? But, I suspect that it didn’t. In fact, scholars reject the idea of Romans releasing prisoners in this fashion – it only exists in the Gospels.

What I do know is that this moment in the story has caused centuries of tsuris for the Jews. I also know that this movie, which will be distributed by 20th Century Fox, is going to be seen by an awful lot of Americans in areas who don’t actually see and know Jews in real life. (Nor do they know anyone from the Middle East, so they won’t blink when they see a a very white Irish woman playing Mary, but that’s another story.)

The point is this: if you are making a Jesus movie today, it is important to make smart choices. In “Son of God” we see Peter walking, for a moment, on water. Only one of the four Gospels mentions this (Matthew). The other three leave this out. Couldn’t “Son of God” have left out the smirking Jew at the center of so much interfaith strife?

Jesus on the way to his crucifixion in 'Son of God.' (20th Century Fox)
Jesus on the way to his crucifixion in ‘Son of God.’ (20th Century Fox)

“Son of God” and “The Bible” have a list of consultants a mile long. One of which is Joel Osteen, a televangelist that, if you were casting a movie and wanted a creepy televangelist, you’d reject him because he looks like such a cliché no one would buy it. A rabbi named Joshua Garroway from The Hebrew Union College and Abe Foxman of the ADL did, however, sign off on it. I suppose it is up to you to decide if these scenes aren’t so hot.

The film’s low quality, however, is undeniable. The chintzy music over the closing credits, just after Jesus ascends to heaven in a cloud of bundled iMac special effects, is just laughable. I don’t care if you are the most devout born-again Christian, you’ll be horrified at the low-wattage production value. This is 2014. I know what Jesus said about the rich man and the eye of the needle, but he wasn’t talking about movie budgets.

I know Jesus said about the rich man and the eye of the needle, but he wasn’t talking about movie budgets

There have been some fabulous movies about Jesus. Nicholas Ray’s 1961 epic “King of Kings” is the alpha and omega as far as bold Technicolor Hollywood versions go. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 version of “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” is a favorite among the arthouse set, with its black and white photography and anachronistic music. Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” was wildly controversial in 1988, but today can be seen as a bold and beautiful pronouncement of faith. Then, of course, there’s Norman Jewison’s film version of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which has one of the catchiest soundtracks ever written.

Any and all of these films are worth your time. “Son of God” is junk.

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