Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Son of God

Disclaimer:  I am not a Christian.  I have never been Christian.  The story is two thousand years old, and so inevitably I picked it up along the way.  As a matter of fact, religion is one of the most interesting topics around on a purely scholarly level to me.  I love learning about faiths,  interpretations, sects, and dogma.  For a figure to have held such an important place in billions of people's lives for thousands of years, Jesus of Nazareth had to be a great man.  As a Jew, I'm proud of him.  I do not believe he was the messiah, I do not believe he was the son of God, I do not believe in the Christian faith.  But I do respect him and his teachings - though I will make the occasional sacrilegious joke every so often, and you'll just have to deal with that.  I also respect the faiths of every person in this world, include those of the people who made this movie, and those people who want to have a religious experience at a movie theater.

That being said, despite  my honest respect for Christianity and Jesus Christ and his teachings, I have the unfortunate job to tell you, my audience, that "Son of God" is a piece of fucking shit.

Adapting the story of Christ has never been an easy task for Hollywood.  Indeed, it is difficult to adapt the story of any major prophet to any artistic medium.  Jesus has been more heavily served than Muhammad*, Abraham, Mani, or L. Ron Hubbard, mostly because film has generally been a medium dominated by Christians, who generally have had no problems with depicting their lord and savior visually**.  In India there is an equally large tradition of making films about Buddha.  So there is a long history of Jesus movies, going all the way back to the silent movie era.  We've seen huge sprawling Hollywood epics such as "King of Kings" and the humbly-titled "The Greatest Story Ever Told", but also dramatic musicals with "Jesus Christ Superstar", controversial re-interpretations with "The Last Temptation of Christ", and finally two hours of meaningless violence with "The Passion of the Christ".  However, "Son of God" is infinitely less interesting than anything that has preceded it.  It is boring that even the Holy Ghost cannot sit through a viewing without falling asleep.

"Son of God" is so painfully safe and orthodox that it is entirely not worth seeing.  It has all the dramatic weight of a Sunday school pageant.  There is very little in the way of unifying plot, there is no interpretation into the character and identity of Jesus Christ, and there are no surprises of any kind.  It simply colors in the Gospels well within the lines, it might as well be an illustrated children's Bible.  If you want to have an experience where you will better understand Jesus either as a human being or as a divine figure, you will find nothing but coldness here.

Jesus is a complex figure with an unusual life story, one which never fit into the expectations of the Jewish people living under Roman occupation praying for a savior, and one that is probably still difficult to understand today.  This character has to be both God and man at the same time - both the most perfect saintly being, but also to keep the story dramatically interesting, a weak human with fears and desires.  It is very difficult to reconcile those two halves, and still tell an entertaining movie.  Most Hollywood productions generally ignore the entire Dyophysite issue, and rather than having a film about a Jesus that is both Man and Divine, it is a movie about a Jesus that is only Man.  The reasons for this are that most writers and the film audiences are humans, not divinities, so we can only really understand the corporeal Christ, not the supernatural***.

I don't want to ignore the many ancient Egyptian Gods who love going to see movies, but let's be honest, mortal humans are what make Hollywood studios money, not Ammit, Devourer of Souls.

Jesus knows how to work a crowd.

The point is that "Son of God" really does not give us much of an introspection into who Jesus is, or what he is thinking half the time.  Most of the film is shown through the perspective of his followers, who are generally far less developed than their master, or through the perspective of scheming Jewish religious authorities.  The whole film has this bizarre choppy pacing, where we simply move between all the memorable scenes of Jesus' ministry, but without much development between them.  So Jesus is meeting with Peter, and now he has all the Apostles assembled into his supergroup, and now he's feeding the poor with magical fishes and bread, and now he's walking on water.  The major lessons and sayings are here, but there's so little context and meaning behind any of it.

I suspect this is mostly because of the film's unusual production.  By which I mean "Son of God" is not a real movie, its actually a recut of last year's History Channel miniseries "The Bible", with the Jesus scenes roped together into a single narrative.  As I recall, that miniseries was only half drama and half documentary, with many voice-overs by Keith David, all of which have been removed.  Plus the possibly interesting character of Satan, played by an actor who looked exactly like Barack Obama, is missing as well.  This is an awkward way of putting together a movie, and extremely cheap.  If not even offensive, perhaps.  Like, we could be watching a two-hour adaptation of the Gospels with a script written specifically for that purpose and with a proper budget, instead we're watching a crude recut with mediocre production values.  I hope you love terrible CG establishing shots of first century Jerusalem, because there are a lot of them.

Mel Gibson will be disappointed to learn the torture scenes
are very brief.

Jesus and his followers come across a woman about to be stoned for adultery.  We know nothing more about this woman but what the local Pharisee says about her.  We do not really know what Jesus' opinion is about the situation is either.  Then he suddenly drops a rock, and says his famous line "he who is without sin may cast the first stone", and the scene ends.  Just like that.  What did that line mean?  Why is it so shocking to the crowd?  I know anybody who has gone to Sunday School knows the meaning of this parable, but the movie never really gives context for it.  What about this woman Jesus just saved?  How did he feel about it?  There's so many complex emotions that could come through in this moment:  maybe Jesus wanted to stone the woman but felt he too was guilty of sins himself, maybe there was some kind of ancient feminist philosophy going through his head, maybe it was a planned protest against the evils of ancient society, or maybe it was a sudden instinctual act that turned out to be an inspiring life lesson.  Well, we learn nothing more about it, because we have to move on to bringing Lazarus back from the dead.  "Son of God" follows the Gospels exactly to the sentence, and that's why there's nothing to this movie.

You don't need to see this movie, really.  If you know the story, you've already seen it.  And I suspect whatever you have imagining in your head is far more interesting than this snoozefest.

What's curious to me is that "Son of God" is how it is marketed to the religious crowd.  Its been made to be a tent pole release, and its financial success is supposed to have some sort of message about the relevancy and power of Christian audiences.  But assuming you are a Christian, that would mean you would know the story of the New Testament very well - I hope.  So you would know the great lines - "one who lives by the sword, dies by the sword", the lessons, the miracles, and the story by heart.  "Son of God" therefore gives you exactly that.  Paint-by-numbers Gospels.  I'm sure the severe orthodoxy might be a selling point to some, who simply believe that the story of Christ without embellishment is indeed the most important event to ever occur, but I feel like once they actually see this movie, they will not get very much out of it.  If anything, they might be bored too.  "Son of God" is literally preaching to the choir, so there was no reason it had to be so damn safe... and more importantly, dull.

Take the far superior "Jesus Christ Superstar".  It makes a point to deeply characterize all of the major figures, especially Judas, whose conflict with Jesus - inspired not out of hatred but love - is the main driver of events.  Ted Neeley took Jesus in that film and made his own unique character out of him.  It was great work.  Or another example:  "Last Temptation of Christ", which was very controversial because of how it made Jesus so human.  Willem Dafoe - who probably should have been playing the Antichrist rather than the regular Christ - took the character and made it his own.  "Last Temptation" makes the savior a tragic figure tortured by his divine destiny, and one that is hardly a paragon of virtue.  Both are great films.  "Son of God" does NOTHING with the material, and is as disposable and meaningless as a ceramic plate with a portrait of Jesus on it.  Or a fish bumper sticker.

"I come back to you now - at the turn of the tide."

The shame of it is that "Son of God" probably did not need to be a bad movie.  There's nothing wrong with a movie about faith, there's nothing outwardly offensive about making a movie about Jesus.  Hell, even the casting is not particularly awful.  The film is full of complete unknowns, but it very nearly works.  Diogo Morgado has a nice serene screen presence about him that makes him look like a convincing - and extremely sexy - Jesus.  Darwin Shaw as Peter is probably the highlight of the movie.  Unfortunately, there is very little room for actual acting in "Son of God".  The scenes are too brief and hurried, and for the most part, the directing is too amateurish to make for convincing dialog when characters are not merely shouting each other's name.

You can even see a small bit of creativity and energy in at least one scene.  It is around the time Jesus foresees his death, making for the most awkward Passover Seder ever.  Jesus has stormed away, upset that his believers will all fail him, when Peter comes to comfort him and announces that he would give his life for his rabbi.  You see a look of honest relief, love, and comfort on Diogo Morgado's face, such true joy to have a friend like this.  But then he gets his vision that Peter will deny him three times before dawn****, and you can see the despair fall back into his features.  That was great filmmaking.  It was a thirty second moment of actual humanity and character interaction, something that is so badly missing from the rest of this movie.

The real problem with "Son of God" is that it is not really a movie.  Its a sermon.  There is no artistry or experimentation going on, it is going through the motions in the worst and most cynical ways.  Nobody attempted to dramatize the Bible because they very foolishly thought the story needed no dramatization, that simply summarizing the events without putting in any work at all was enough to make for a compelling experience.  And I suppose if you really just want to see Jesus on the big screen, "Son of God" will make your day.  But you have other choices.  There are at least a dozen other movies that tell the story of Jesus Christ, and some of them have great catchy musical numbers.

But as for me, I want more.  This is a horrible movie by any objective standard.  Jesus can be, and should be, a lot of things:  revolutionary, spiritual master, defender of the poor, savior.  But I don't know any version of Christianity that is content with being boring.  Maybe Satan was just whispering in my ear the entire time I watched this film, forcing me to reject the power of God's Holy message.  And now this review is nothing but a hate-filled rant inspired by the Dark Lord himself.  Or maybe I was struggling to stay awake and dozed off twice, and just saw a terrible goddamned movie.  Forgive the pun.

* Believe it or not, there actually was a movie made about the life of Muhammad.  It was a 1976 international production (partially funded by the late-dictator Muammar Gaddafi) known as "Mohammad, Messenger of God", filmed both in English with Western actors and in Arabic with Arab actors.  I have not seen it myself, but the way director Moustapha Akkad made the film was by avoiding filming Muhammad directly in any scene, or ever having him speak.  Instead all of his dialog is spoken by the film's other characters or the narrator.  Since it is taboo to depict Muhammad, or any of his wives, or the first four Caliphs, the film instead focuses on Hamza, Muhammad's uncle and martyr to the Muslim faith.  It is a very strange way to make a movie, to say the least, but I suppose this method keeps a great deal of holy mystery and unreachable aura about Muhammad.

** Besides those various centuries in Byzantine history when iconoclasm has been popular.

*** It also leads to any number of paradoxes in that now you have to write a movie about a character who is God, and thus knows everything, and thus would already know what is going to happen throughout his life story.  So the prospect of physical death on the Cross would be as terrifying to the LORD as a bowel movement would be to you or I.  The world's greatest empire, Rome, is as much of a threat to this Jesus as the world's smartest termite.

**** Which this movie mildly fucks up because Peter winds up denying his association with Jesus after dawn.


  1. Good thing I already saw this on TV when it was FREE and better edited. Outside of reviewers like you, Blue, I don't know why anyone would waste their hard earned 15 bucks on a rehashed movie of half of a mini series that was boring as dirt anyway. Seriously if you're going to retell the story of Jesus at least make it INTERESTING.

    1. Most critics are part of some respected news media and do not pay for their movies at all, they either get to see them at special press screenings, or have their companies pay for the tickets. I am just me, alone, backed up only by a shadowy conspiracy of walkthrough writers planning on conquering the world - but they don't pay for my tickets.

      Also, if you're wondering, I didn't pay a cent to see Son of God.

    2. I should have worded that second sentence better. Anywho if you guys succeed in taking over the world can I get a position as a slave driver or disciplinary officer? I know how work a guy over with a whip.

  2. I come from a very Catholic family, and I heard that an aunt said that this movie should be watched under some conditions. I do not remember them, but I know she said that we should not see this movie like movie critics. And that was a very, very unfortunate implication. Does it mean that it left a Christian message but everything else was bad? That can be a major problem, unless your movie is intentionally bad or so bad it's good.

    By the way, since I found out about your blog yesterday (or the day before yesterday) and I found you are Jewish, and I do not know a single Jew in real life, I have some questions:
    1. I know that Jews do not believe in Hell. Is any other afterlife place they believe in besides Heaven?
    2. Do Jews believe or have an equivalent of Satan?
    3. A teacher said that, according to some versions of the Genesis, there was a woman before Eve (Lilith). I know she was present in the original version (Mesopotamian mythology), but does she appear in the Jewish Bible?