As far as religious retellings go Son of God is a mostly passable highlight reel of the New Testament that should largely please the faithful and not bore the unconverted or disinterested to tears. Theological arguments aside (since taking any Biblical story is essentially like adapting any novel or play in history in terms of how faithful one can be to the story), the only real problem with the film is an incredibly choppy first half – a by-product of the fact that this film has already been mostly cobbled together out of a ten part 2013 TV mini-series called The Bible, produced by Survivor creator Mark Burnett and his wife, actress Roma Downey.
After an extremely brisk opening that retells the entire Old Testament in approximately three minutes that very unfortunately looks like a montage from Burnett’s most famous television production, the film dives right into an already adult Jesus going around and gathering up apostles in rapid succession. It moves almost a little too fast for the first 45 minutes or so, literally feeling like a disjointed greatest hits album while there’s every indication that there should be something going on between each of the scenes that’s going unseen. The opening section of the film is pure Burnett, right down to majestic landscape shots with extreme camera pans and parts where Jesus could just be sitting with someone and it seems like they are being forced into posing for the camera. Predominant director Christopher Spencer (who has a heavy TV documentary background and gets assistance from two other “additional footage” directors) was clearly shooting this with the small screen in mind, and maybe it should have stayed that way.
Then again, without those opening 45 minutes, the film would just play like a Passion of the Christ knock-off, albeit a fairly less brutal and more dramatically nuanced version of the same. Once the film has gotten the key moments of Jesus’ life out of the way (“let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” the “fisher of men” speech, the loaves and fishes, Lazarus), then the film actually starts to get interesting because the performances start to take centre stage and the film becomes a lot more focused. Once the film gets around to the municipal intrigue between the Jews and the Romans, the infamous Last Supper, and Judas’ betrayal, it finally begins to become something worthy of being called cinematic.
About the time that Jesus arrives in Jerusalem and the Jewish high priests seek to silence and imprison him over fears of a rebellion on Passover, it becomes more apparent how great of an effort Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado is putting in as the star. His Jesus is warm, confident, forgiving, and in an interesting bit of character development, completely rational. When he’s put in opposition to Adrian Schiller’s equally great high priest Caiphas, the film adds depth to the tried and true passion play.
Much like a well staged Shakespearian adaptation, Son of God spends the remainder of its 138 minute running time leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus playing out exactly as it should with no deviation from the sacred text it wants to do justice to. That’s fine. Much like Shakespeare, these kinds of films happen all the time. And much like many of those adaptations, they also suffer somewhat from being edited down from a much larger and more interesting text.