Son of God preaches to the choir

This narrative of the life of Jesus offers little that is new, uplifting or inspiring.

| February 27, 2014

Not unexpectedly, the drama Son of God does less to illuminate the biblio-historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth than it does to explain what informs a particular segment of vocal religious conservatism in our political culture. From the outset, the film depicts one-dimensional, horrible Roman soldiers beating the poor citizens for no good reason other than the exercise of brute force. Such scenes are repeated throughout a film on its way to building a theme that makes perfectly clear the evils of earthly power.

Into this brutal world arrives a preternaturally (of course) serene Jesus (Diego Morgado), depicted for modern followers as the most beautiful savior the world could hope for. Along with his tranquil smile, he brings good news — that the meek shall inherit the earth. His appeal is easy to understand: Jesus advocates an upheaval of the existing social order (first, last; last, first). Even among his growing band of disciples, the message speaks to their most basic desire — to see their oppressors beneath them. It is left to Peter, who will become the rock of the church on earth, to admonish his colleagues that the reversal of fortune they all seek must come peaceably.

For those outside the movie's target audience, Son of God exemplifies a simplistic form of religious devotion. Absent from the film is any consideration of the concept of “faith,” or what it means to seek a deeper, more meaningful life, or to establish a personal relationship with the ultimate creator. This Jesus is compassionate (in word and example), but that’s hardly the message his followers hear, and it’s not the one this film explores or exploits. For filmmakers and disciples alike, Jesus is the ultimate political figure with magic powers — the parables of Galilee and Lazarus are illustrated in due course — and what he promises is everlasting life as long as you believe in him. It’s a command tailor-made for those inclined to believe they haven’t received their just reward in this life. “But it’s coming in the next, just you wait” is the comforting message.

It’s depressing to consider how steadfastly unchallenging Son of God is to its core audience. The apostles have two modes of reaction: anger at those who doubt that their leader is the messiah, and moist-eyed awe and pleasure at his miracles. Those reactions notwithstanding, there’s nothing dramatized here that approaches the profound or uplifting. And that failure to connect is why Son of God isn’t a worthwhile film, regardless of one's religious outlook. It isn't interested in dramatizing the impulses that brought Jesus's disciples to him — that they were there and followed is presented as enough.

If it were possible to somehow view the film outside of the weight of memory or history, Son of God would still reveal itself to be an episodic cluster of scenes that pit a nice guy with apparent supernatural powers and a comforting message against religious hypocrites and government thugs. There’s no drama to this, because the film doesn't bother framing the eventual betrayal and crucifixion (to say nothing of their meaning). It takes for granted we know the story, and considers its work already done.

View Son of God with a critical eye on human nature, and it’s easy to to see the story of Jesus as one that those in power hope to cynically exploit in order to keep the masses accepting of their lot in life because “the Bible tells them so.” Why worry about the powerful getting rich off the powerless (or why be envious of that well-to-do business owner or congressman) when the riches of heaven await? For the true believer unencumbered by anything resembling doubt, Son of God will play like what it is intended to be — a soothing affirmation of the one true faith, and confirmation that those who see nothing but evil in earthly governance are fighting the good fight.


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