Jesus is back as Christians are promised but not necessarily as planned. Few would have predicted the success of last year's television miniseries The Bible, and fewer would have guessed that recycling and augmenting that material could become a movie.
The result is Son of God, a reverent procession of Jesus' greatest hits, from first miracle to Last Supper and beyond. This isn't a zealous rabble-rouser like The Passion of the Christ, or perceived blasphemy like The Last Temptation of Christ. It's a capable Sunday school lesson with little for anyone to challenge and practically nothing that offends.
Portuguese actor and model Diogo Morgado portrays Jesus, younger and more pop culture magnetic than usual. Morgado bears close resemblance to Brad Pitt, exuding a surfer dude magnetism urging attention. As a darker-skinned Jesus than usual, Morgado's casting is more of a landmark than is his charismatic performance.
Son of God begins with a crash course montage of Old Testament touchstones — Adam and Eve, Noah's ark, etc. — culled from the miniseries, before settling into the Nativity story and growing friction between Roman forces commanded by Pontius Pilate (scowling Greg Hicks) and Jewish leaders fronted by Caiaphas (Adrian Schiller). As Jesus' popularity grows, and his teachings diverge from official, self-serving edicts, Roman and Jewish leaders juggle the young rabbi's fate like a hot potato, neither side wishing to rile its subjects.
Everything culminates with Jesus' crucifixion, a tamer dramatization than Mel Gibson inflicted yet violent enough to make squeamish viewers cringe. Like everything else in Son of God the sequence could use some of Cecil B. DeMille's majestic flair to make it seem like less of a Scripture recitation.
Artistically, Son of God seldom rises above its basic cable roots, framed mostly for TV screens with medium to tight closeups, and telltale fadeouts where commercials would nicely fit. Matte shots establishing locations like Jerusalem look more fake when blown up to theater size. Some supporting performances that come across as too eager or unsubtle can't handle being magnified to large format dimensions.
But spiritually — what Son of God's audience is really interested in — the movie can hardly be faulted. The screenplay, cobbled by four writers in separate sessions, stays true to source material as one expects, with numerous theologians and ministers serving as advisers. (And shills, since their involvement is part of the grass roots marketing plan.) Son of God is content with preaching to a captive choir, who'll consider ticket prices as tithing for what they've seen at home for free.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.