Ten years ago, I went to a movie theater to watch Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ with a friend of mine who is a doctor, curious to see if the charges of the film's anti-Semitism were true. As my friend and I watched the umpteenth scene of a staggering Jesus groaning in pain and drenched in his own blood, my friend whispered in my ear, "No human could bleed that much and stay standing." If you haven't seen it, The Passion of the Christ is absurdly, grotesquely gory, violent, and yes, anti-Semitic -- for an example of its anti-Semitism, check out how Satan appears throughout the film (though not throughout the gospels) walking amongst the Jews, implying that they are on his side. Or look at what Gibson, in his own words, really thinks about Jews.
Now, reality TV kingpin Mark Burnett and his actress wife Roma Downey (both devout Christians) are releasing Son of God, a supposedly family-friendly PG-13 version of the Jesus story that is actually a repackaging of episodes from their hit cable miniseries, The Bible. With The Passion of the Christ being the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time, are audiences interested in a less bloody take on Jesus' life? And does Son of God attempt to tell us anything about Jesus' life that Christians and non-Christians don't already know? Watch my ReThink Review of Son of God below (transcript following).
It's been a decade since Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ became the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time, and now we have Son of God, produced by reality TV kingpin Mark Burnett and his wife Roma Downey, who also produced the miniseries The Bible, which was the highest-rated cable show of 2013 and the top-selling DVD miniseries of all time. So there's clearly still a lot of money to be made in telling and retelling the Jesus story, which from a studio standpoint is more than enough reason to put JC back in theaters. But for me, an atheist who's long been fascinated by Christianity and whose favorite class in college was analyzing the Bible as a novel, I'm more interested in what parts of the Jesus story Son of God included or excluded, and what a film like this tells Christian audiences today.
Jesus is played by Portuguese hunk Diogo Morgado, with the rest of the cast primarily made up of British actors, with Greg Hicks as Pontius Pilate, Darwin Shaw as Peter, Joe Wreddon as Judas, Amber Rose Revah as Mary Magdalene, Adrian Schiller as Caiaphas, and Roma Downey as Mary. The story starts with Jesus coming out of the wilderness and follows him as he rounds up disciples, earns more followers through teaching and performing miracles, and eventually heads to Jerusalem where (SPOILER ALERT!) he's eventually betrayed and crucified, leading to his eventual resurrection.
Unlike Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which is primarily an anti-Semitic impossibly bloody torture porn snuff film that largely avoids Jesus' loving and nonviolent teachings, Son of God does an admirable job of portraying the complex political tensions of Jerusalem at that time. Instead of portraying the Jewish high priests as simply Jesus-hating jerks, therefore justifying anti-Semitism, Son of God shows the balancing act the high priests attempted to walk, trying to preserve their own power under Roman rule while recognizing that citizens were infuriated by the Romans' unfair taxation and brutal tactics, while also recognizing that a popular rabbi claiming to be the messiah arriving in Jerusalem during Passover would lead to an uprising and an inevitably bloody Roman crackdown that might destroy the Jewish nation.
But the Romans also aren't the villains, with Pontius Pilate portrayed as someone who hates his assignment and simply thinks Jesus is another crackpot, not realizing the threat he poses to Roman rule. The disciples are also shown as a group often wracked by doubts and confusion who ultimately, and literally, leave Jesus hanging.
Unfortunately, Son of God also feels clunkily edited, more like a truncated version of Jesus' greatest hits than a full, detailed account of the Jesus story, which made me wonder why the Messiah didn't at least deserve a sequel or a trilogy, especially since big box office is virtually assured. But I later learned that Son of God is simply a repackaged, shortened version of episodes from Burnett and Downey's The Bible miniseries, which is sure to disappoint Christian fans thinking they're getting something new, or worse, seem like a cynical money grab.
But my main hope for Son of God, despite its flaws and liberties, is that Christians see it and seriously reconsider what supposedly devout conservative politicians are doing in their name -- where being a good Christian has been hijacked to mean dehumanizing gays, oppressing women, hating Muslims, ignoring science, and shitting on minorities and the poor at every opportunity. Because you know what Jesus never mentioned? Gay marriage, abortion, or tax cuts for the rich, though he expressly exalted the poor and called on his followers to be compassionate, forgiving, and nonviolent. If you think that sounds anything like today's Republican party, or that Jesus as he's portrayed in Son of God would be on the side of Ted Nugent, Rush Limbaugh, or the Tea Party, you live in a deluded fantasy world. But if you do think Jesus would be voting Republican, and the second coming happens (SPOILER ALERT! It won't), you're going to have a lot of explaining to do.