Cinematic adaptations of the earthly life of Jesus Christ must all, in a sense, disappoint for one of two reasons. They are either handicapped by a nervous fidelity to the text of the Four Evangelists, and thus lose themselves in a sea of pious tedium, or, moved by a spirit of whimsical heterodoxy, they introduce a whole host of novelties somehow calculated to bring the Son of Man and His message into the present century. The guiding philosophy of this latter category, evidently, is the supposition that a man who has just partaken of old wine “straightway desireth new.” The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) featured a soundtrack composed by Peter Gabriel, as I recall.
Son of God is the latest of Hollywood’s occasional attempts to cash in on the Word made Flesh. The film is essentially an enlarged reproduction of parts of last year’s History Channel miniseries The Bible, and stars Diogo Morgado in the title role. I should note right away that the cinematic tradition of hiring classically handsome men to play the Man of Sorrows has gone far enough and ought to be scrapped. Let us have more plausibly semitic Yeshua bar Yosefs, for Christ’s sake.
The tone of the film is in no way ambiguous from the opening voice-over monologue to the closing credits. The depiction of the Nativity is as placid as the crèche from the lobby of your local parochial school. I believe I may even have seen an ox or two kneeling. Exactly one of the Three Wise Men is black. This is most pious. Throughout the remainder of the show, the same conservative approach prevails in visual matters and narrative. The producers, evidently no fools, have capitalized on those touchingly familiar elements that made The Bible a success so greatly blessed by Mammon.
One of the most maddening things about any literalist Gospel film is the difficulty of taking the deliberately spare narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and building a sequential 100-minute storyline out of their various episodes without violating source material which has its own demands. Son of God offers no new means of solving this problem. If it weren’t irreverent to do so, a less reverent set of filmmakers might more accurately have named this film The Son of God’s Greatest Hits. The tone of the picture sounds enough inspirational notes to lift us out of ourselves at key moments (witness the combination of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican with the Calling of St. Matthew) without ever ceasing to be altogether familiar, the sort of stuff a fondly remembered Sunday school teacher might have trotted out, ever careful to avoid any of Our Lord’s saltier utterances. As you probably anticipated, His utterly shocking repost to the Syrophoenician woman does not appear as an outtake during the end credits. Neither does the Parable of the Unjust Steward. As portrayed by Morgado, Christ is the very picture of well-groomed courtesy. He insults no one, not even the Pharisees. The Cleansing of the Temple is allowed a perfunctory execution. By the time St. Peter cuts off Malchus’ ear, we are surprised that Jesus’ rebuke does not include any reference to the prior jurisdiction of the U.N. Security Council. Inherited habits of this kind-the modern tendency to locate the center of the Christian claim in the personal attractiveness of Christ-etherize many of the picture’s moral possibilities. An intelligent atheist, walking out of the theater after watching this, might easily say, “of course the prophet Yeshua was a man of immense personal magnetism; but outside of the Gospels themselves, I see no evidence for His resurrection, and consequently, your claim that His death was an atoning sacrifice offered on our behalf must consequently be struck down.” Consciously or no, (probably no) the Christ of the American evangelical tradition represents an attempt to appeal to the skeptic’s sentiments when it has given up hope of appealing to his reason. “If they could only see how winsome a character He really was, then surely they will reverence the Son.” One envies this kind of belief its willingness to see softheartedness where it may not really exist. But all such attempts to soften the edges of the Word must finally fail. A charming Christ is a false messiah. When at last Hollywood can produce a Gospel film featuring a Christ worth hating, we may take it as a sign that we have made some small progress toward a light we hate, because our deeds are evil.