by Amile Wilson
For all those religious movie buffs out there, I had the pleasure of attending a preview screening Son of God, a recutting of the History Channel’s massive series, Son of God is a dramatic retelling of the life and ministry of Christ in motion picture form. It’s a narrative feature, a “made for film” adaptation of the Gospel of John, not a documentary.
Son of God will be in theatres February 28th and the producers are encouraging churches, Bible studies, and others to go as a group.
100% this was a dramatic story about the power of the Gospel to change lives, not about brutality, not about scriptural chronology, and not about making a political statement.
For those of you reading the blog and wanting me to provide some 2nd Commandment commentary I won’t do that here. That’s a debate best saved for another time, another blog, etc. Anyone wondering what I mean by 2nd Commandment questions, can read some on the PROs and CONs on google.
With a nearly two and a half hour running time, SOG is incredibly long (but significantly shorter than History’s massive epoch). The emotional story arc is powerful enough that I won’t say the film is too long, but any longer and it would be. Let’s be honest, we all know the story, the question is just how SOG decides to handle the details. Every time I’d almost start to get board, the filmmakers would make a creative choice that brought me back into the storytelling.
There were things left out that I was disappointed by and things included I wasn’t sure about, but the power of the movie was quite obvious (especially at a culturally diverse Angelus Temple church in downtown LA).
A FEW COMMENTS ON THE FILMMAKING SIDE:
• The film as a whole is not so much the traditional moral tale or passion story we typically see in traditional “life of Christ” projects. The Passion scenes, while still physically real, were much more muted than Mel Gibson’s bloodbath version. Throughout the entire film, the Romans were shown to be a three-dimensional culture both intellectually developed and ruthlessly violent – a fairly well developed character portrayal. But the brutality of the crucifixion was not the point of SOG – any more palpable portrayal would have actually detracted from the story. The point of the film was not the brutality of the Passion but the power of Christ to change lives. Anything more brutal would have become a distraction.
• Christ the Actor. At the screening, the directors said that they wanted someone who could portray both the Lion and Lamb of Christ. Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado actually does an incredible job portraying the emotional range and inner dialogue one should expect from the Christ character. It’s a hard role to play, because Christ is a man of sorrows who’s come to deliver joyful news. Morgado does it well.
• While we’re on the topic of casting, I was very pleased to see how many people actually looked like they belonged in Palestine. Jesus was a 30 A.D. Jew as were most of his early followers and they looked ethnically Jewish. Good general casting. And, a nice choice on the use of a black actor to portray Simon of Cyrene helping Christ carry the cross. Shows both the diversity of the region and the growing diversity of the early church.
• CGI – while not Avatar, the movie had “better than History Channel” CGI so I have to give a nice hat-tip to that aspect.
• Very comfortable transitions – shifting from light to dark was never so quick that my pupils were hurting. A personal pet peeve of mine.
Enough about casting & such. Let’s talk content & historical/theological choices.
CHARACTER & THEOLOGICAL CHOICE
Mary Magdalene is always a controversial and difficult character to include in anything. Christopher Spencer and the rest of the creative team did it well. She’s shown as a close follower of Christ, but there is never any hint at a romantic relationship (always a concern when people start including her in stories). Her presence gives women a relatable character on screen, and while this edited version puts her almost as a 13th disciple, I have to say that the storytelling element here was powerful. Sitting in an audience full of women, there was a very obvious connection with her character that the film needed even if it was a Biblical stretch.
A special thanks for NOT making her the “adulterous woman” from John 8. No Biblical basis for that, and I’m sick of that being the dominant interpretation of her character.
The interaction between Pilate and his wife provided a similar heroine for the screen and truly made Greg Hicks character more well-rounded.
One woman I missed seeing on screen was Mary, the wife of Cleopas. I really wanted that image of the three Mary’s at the foot of the cross and it didn’t happen.
I was similarly disappointed with Christ’s reaction to Lazarus’ death. I wanted to see the true humanity of a broken-hearted Christ weeping over Lazarus, but again that never happened. In not seeing this, I think we lost an opportunity to see the truth of the incarnate Word.
As they wrapped up this abridged cutting, John’s voice over describes the Apostles going throughout the world. Personal issue here – I really wanted a mention of Thomas making it all the way to India. But now I’m just being picky about my personal preferences.
A few other points of creative license and some commentary on them:
Peter performs the first post-resurrection communion when he sees the empty tomb. (A tomb I never saw the Roman response to and would have very much liked to see). Good establishment of the act as a historical sacrament. Quite a bit of artistic license there, but I think viable and makes the point.
The feeding of the 5,000 was very artistically well done and gives one of several viable interpretations of the events. One of the few times we see a very “Derek Thomas” view on the struggled marriage of Christ’s humanity and divinity.
Conversion of Matthew was perhaps my favorite scene in the entire movie. Very powerful message of how Jesus changes lives – A message echoed in the ongoing gradual conversion of Niccodemus (who provided a fabulous voice of dissent against the high priest). Matthew’s change from Tax-Collector to one of the Twelve was smart as well as moving. Well told and well acted. Christ uses the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector to move Matthew’s heart. While not chronologically “Biblical” it was a great storytelling element.
It’s important to remember that what made this film good was that it adapted chronology, and context to make the parables, the teachings, and the events all intertwine in a way un-characteristic of Hebrew literature.
Does it, fulfill it’s missional message “Jesus transforms lives?” Better than any other religious film I’ve seen.
Thomas as a roughneck with a cockney accent? Okay, interesting character choice, but I enjoyed it.
Post Resurrection transfigured Jesus is always a stretch for me, and I think even people with a more liberal view of the Second Commandment image debate can get squeamish here. I wasn’t happy with their portrayal, but then I’m not sure there’s a portrayal that would make me happy. I’m just squeamish about the transfigured image – I don’t think there’s a way to do it without it being weird. That said, these guys did the best they could.
I won’t spoil it, but the final shot of the movie was a VERY GOOD theological and artistic image. I realized I was nodding my head with pleasure watching it. Watch and enjoy. Further up and Deeper in.
SUMMING IT ALL UP
There’s no question, SOG elicits an incredible emotional response from its audience. Taking into account the cultural elements of the diverse church, that’s to be expected. Not everyone can be as stoic as the Scottish Presbyterians nor as ecstatic as the African Pentecostals. The film lies somewhere in the middle never crossing over into the maudlin while remaining true to its missional statement “Jesus transforms lives.”
But that’s not the entire Gospel.
As with any creative portrayal, this was designed simply as a foretaste, a telling of the Gospel with one point emphasized. Cinematically, editorially, the entire creative experience was masterfully done. The film doesn’t replace a sermon (what can?!) but it does do a good job as “intro to the teachings and ministry of Jesus.” It portrays Christ as one who transforms people’s lives, saves them from their sins and provides hope for the universe. All important points and all very good starting points for a religious conversation.
But this movie is just that, a movie, an artist’s interpretation, not a complete and accurate portrayal of Christ nor a substitute of Biblical study, public worship and personal meditation. One of the better religious films I’ve seen and certainly one that portrays one aspect of Christ incredibly well.
ONE LAST NOTE:
To all my Presbyterian brethren out there with the debates over John Frame, image creation vs. image worship, and general 2nd commandment and regulative principle discussions, I invite you to weigh in below. The purpose of this blog is to talk aesthetics. Want my theological opinion on that, and I’m happy to discuss elsewhere. Here, just sticking to the good old fashioned movie review!!
Best wishes all!