The producers who brought us the surprising television smash The Bible turned to the big screen this weekend with their presentation of the Gospel in Son of God. The film follows Jesus of Nazareth, after a brief prologue which uses a montage from The Bible as introduction, as the Messiah travels through ancient Israel to His death and resurrection, all the way through to His ascension at the climax.

Producing Biblical epics are notoriously difficult, and the history of such projects are replete with failures and controversy. Even a lengthy miniseries format didn’t keep The Bible from occasionally feeling like a “Best Of” compilation of Scripture. The last cinematic attempt at the Gospels was The Passion of the Christ, which generated an avalanche of criticism but also an avalanche at the box office, which has paved the road for efforts such as Roma Downey’s here. And this is one effort that deserves to be rewarded with a similar box-office avalanche, or at least a small blizzard of ticket sales.

For the most part, Son of God succeeds as both entertainment and an introduction to the Gospel story. Under Christopher Spencer’s direction, the film at times has the same feel as The Bible in that occasionally it feels as though scenes are presented as a way to check boxes. Where Son of God really breaks through is in its focus on the disciples, and their joy in following an itinerant rabbi who has opened their eyes to the path of salvation. The narrative after the opening sequence relies on a clever bookend of narration by John the Evangelist, with the story told in flashback during John’s exile on Patmos. We see the story unfold through John’s eyes, although that format is inconsistent with some of the events that transpire on screen. No matter; it’s impossible to watch the film without participating in John’s complete embrace of Jesus as Lord.

However, not everything works perfectly, either. With a runtime of 138 minutes, the producers obviously could not include everything from the Gospel, but they neglect to show Pilate sending Jesus to Herod Antipas and Antipas returning him, a significant part of the Passion in which all authorities reject Him. We only see John the Baptist in a couple of brief flashbacks, and do not hear the voice of God commissioning Jesus as noted in John 1:32-34. We do not see the Transfiguration, either.  For some reason, we do not start at the wedding feast of Cana, despite its description in John 2:1-12 as the start of his ministry and the beginning of the disciples’ faith in him. The Temptation in the Desert in which Jesus battles Satan for 40 days is never even mentioned, much less depicted.

There are a couple of minor but glaring errors from Scripture too. Jesus meets Simon alone on his boat and calling him Peter from the start; Jesus called Andrew and Simon together, and Peter was a name given him by Jesus after his introduction at that time (in the Gospel of John). The episode with Lazarus, which is dramatic enough in Scripture, is Hollywoodized considerably; Jesus did not go inside the tomb, but called out, “Lazarus, come forth!” (John 11:43)  A chyron states that the resurrection came “three days later” after Jesus’ body is placed in the tomb, when Jesus rose on the third day – which is not the same thing. When He returned to the Twelve afterward, Scripture clearly states (John 20:19, in fact) that the door was closed and barred out of fear of the crowds in Jerusalem. Jesus came through the closed door, but in the film the doorway is wide open.

The cast is exceptionally strong. Darwin Shaw (Peter) and  Sebastian Knapp (John) give brilliant performances, as does Amber Rose Revah as Mary Magdalene (and the film distinguishes between Mary Magdalene and the adulterous woman saved by Jesus from stoning), and Greg Hicks as Pilate. Diogo Morgado has the cinematically-thankless role of Jesus, and provides a welcome, nuanced, and human portrayal. It’s not as intense as Jim Caviezel from Passion of the Christ, but then again, it also provides a less-gory but still realistic depiction of scourging and crucifixion, too.

On the other hand, Son of God seems light on the mystical aspects of Jesus and his ministry, in part because of the Scripture it skips. Passion wove non-Scriptural depictions of Satan into the narrative to emphasize the mystical, but Son of God misses relevant Scripture and chooses instead to emphasize Jesus more as a very powerful rabbi/preacher with great personal charisma instead. That’s ironic given the film’s title, but it also avoids the otherworldly ethereality of Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth. Morgado’s Jesus is easily accessible for audiences, but more as a loving teacher than the Word of God.

However, these issues are relatively minor to the overall impact of Son of God. Any production based on the New Testament will have similar issues, and this film has fewer than most.  Even if those well-versed in Scripture notice the missing and erroneous elements, they will still enjoy the overall film, and it succeeds even more as an invitation to others to come experience the joy of the Gospel. If viewers enjoyed The Bible — and millions did — they will find even more satisfaction with Son of God.

On the Hot Air scale, Son of God gets a five:

  • 5 – Full price ticket
  • 4 – Matinee only
  • 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
  • 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

Son of God is rated PG-13, but mostly for the Passion elements. It’s family friendly, although young children will have problems with the Passion sequence, so either prepare them for it or leave them with the babysitter.

Update: I had originally written that the film was in limited release, but it opened this weekend on more than 3,000 screens. I apologize for the error — and am delighted to be wrong, in this case. (Via Just Karl)