Martin E. Marty
This weekend was time for movies and for talk about them. The Academy Awards, as readers of Sightings may have heard, were awarded. They may also have noticed that "Son of God," a film about Jesus, was released in 3,000 theaters. Reviewers are not free merely to view and write about this film. Instead they are obliged to treat it both as another movie and as the occasion for an argument about Jesus and about filming Jesus.
Nicolas Rapold in The New York Times tried to be generous to "Son of God," but, lucky for him, his paper doesn’t use star ratings. It probably would have rated two stars out of a possible four. The spoken lines, Rapold thought, were marked by “pedagogical predictability” as in “Thomas, stop doubting.” He and other reviewers had difficulty with—dare we call him ‘glamorous’?—Portuguese actor, Diogo Morgado, because critics usually groan when Gentile actors play Jesus or other Jews.
In the Chicago Tribune, Roger Moore gave “Son of God” a mediocre 2 ½ stars and called it, in his headline, “Still a great story, even when tepidly told.” Moore saw “a pleasantly retro ‘hippies will inherit the earth’ take” on this Jesus. He knows that the “film’s main aim is to be inoffensive,” and it managed that. That is not high praise.
The Chicago Sun-Times used the headline: “‘Son of God’: The Good Shepherd in a not-so-good movie,” and the reviewer, Richard Roeper, gave it one star less than it was rated in the Tribune. Roeper came back to reflect on his vocation as a critic: “regardless of your faith (or mine), this space is for me to tell you if a particular film contains a high enough percentage of compelling elements to warrant” readers spending good cash on it. Verdict: “In all good conscience, it's not even a close call.” He also knows that on opening weekend it may sell well; one relief organization alone bought 225,000 tickets in 40 cities. Roeper's reflection, after seeing the Resurrection scene: “it isn’t nearly as powerful and moving as reading the Gospel According to Luke.”
He and other critics gladly announced that this film lacked the anti-Semitism and utter brutality of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ” of a few years ago. Still, Moore writes, “no Jesus film these days is worth its salt without an unflinching treatment” of Jesus’ torture and Crucifixion, which is “avert-your-eyes awful.” And here it is again.
My purpose in Sightings is not to review movies or review reviews so much as to ponder the public place of such films as this. Roeper admits that one feels almost good ripping exploitative, cynical, porn, or brainless films, but "Son of God" is none of these. He knows those who produced it, Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, as “two of the loveliest and most spiritual people.” Their work is reverent and faithful to the text.” Still, by film critics’ standards, they fail. Those who are proclaiming that there is a war on Christians will say that the critics are mere secularists who deride and heap on people of faith, including when they produce or watch films like "Son of God."
Roeper says, “we know this story, as well as we know any story ever told.” Surveys suggest that this is a chancy observation. Biblical illiteracy is measurably and grossly high. While the main audiences will be the already-convinced people of faith, those surveys make clear that the story is not well known, certainly by the general public.
Envy Jews and Muslims, who are not allowed to depict the deity. Christians have to deal with the one they portray as divine and human—pity those who have to review film-makers’ efforts. And perhaps follow Roeper’s implicit advice: read the Gospel of Luke.
References and Additional Resources:
Roeper, Richard. “‘Son of God’: The Good Shepherd in a not-so-good movie.” Review of “Son of God.” Chicago Sun-Times.com, February 27, 2014, Movies.http://www.suntimes.com/entertainment/movies/25829003-421/son-of-god-the-good-shepherd-in-a-not-so-good-movie.html.
Moore, Roger. “Still a great story, even when tepidly told.” Review of “Son of God.”Chicago Tribune, February 27, 2014, A&E. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2014-02-27/entertainment/ct-son-of-god-movie-review-20140227_1_aramaic-jesus-king-james-bible.
Rapold, Nicolas. “The Greatest Story, Retold.” Review of “Son of God.” The New York Times, February 27, 2014, Movie Review. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/28/movies/son-of-god-recounts-the-crucifixion.html?_r=0.
Hornaday, Ann. “‘Son of God’ movie review: Undoubtedly sincere, but also simplistic.”The Washington Post, February 27, 2014, Movies. http://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/movies/son-of-god-movie-review-undoubtedly-sincere-but-also-simplistic/2014/02/26/45191ca2-9eeb-11e3-9ba6-800d1192d08b_story.html.
O’Malley, Sheila. Review of “Son of God.” rogerebert.com, February 28, 2014.http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/son-of-god-2014.
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Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.