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'Son of God' review: Diogo Morgado and company earn the 'well done'

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Son of God

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This is the biopic believers have been waiting for. And perhaps also the curious who wonder what the big deal is about.

Brought to the big screen by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, "Son of God" expands upon the story captured as part of their popular and Emmy-nominated miniseries "The Bible", presented by The History Channel in 2013. Knowing at the time their goal of releasing this as a feature film, they shot the necessary footage all at once, thereby also creating a nice bridge between the two, each of which can stand alone.

The result of much thoughtful and scholarly work, the Downey/Burnett production seeks not to portray a blow-by-blow retelling of the biblical account, but rather to present the gestalt in a way that serves believers and also communicates the broad strokes to those not of the Christian faith.

On both counts, they succeed mightily.

"Son of God" carefully weaves the important events of the faith in a fashion expedient enough for a single sitting, while never collapsing them so fully as to diminish them in any way. For example, those of the faith will recognize elements of two events within a single scene, or portions of a single event separated and woven into other conversations. However, the power of the point itself always shines through with accuracy and clarity for those less familiar.

Another impressive feature, and testament to its thoughtful care, is the even-handedness with which it presents the motivations of those driving Jesus’ worldly fate. Simon the Pharisee, the first Jewish religious leader to encounter Jesus and his claim, comes forth as a devoted man of honest intent, a man not of unreasoning zealotry and rigidity but rather a zealous and honorable protector of his beloved faith and those it serves.

Similarly portrayed are Jewish official Caiaphas and Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, both of whom act from motivation to preserve the peace:Caiaphas in preserving the ability of the Jewish people to practice their faith under the thumb of the Roman occupation, and Pilate in preventing civil upheaval and thereby saving his own skin and that of his family.

The first man cuts corners knowing that the Romans will otherwise destroy their way of life and the last bastion keeping it intact; the second man attempts to counteract said cut corners but ultimately opts for self-preservation. Christian or not, one can and should argue the ethics of both, but the film leaves that to us, and presents them as men, not as monsters. While disagreement may be had with their actions, we come away clearly understanding their predicaments and the pressures that drove them. (It’s the classic ethical debate we still wrestle today.)

Paul Marc Davis, Adrian Schiller, and Greg Hicks turn the in superb portrayals above, and Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado well fills the venerable (and no doubt daunting) sandals of Jesus of Nazareth, capturing both his deep kindness and his backbone of steel.

Thankfully, in this production the tender, heartfelt, and heartbreaking moments are not depicted with the schmaltziness historically attributed to such scenes, and it spares us the beatific fuzzy lens treatment as things start to turn dark (even as a youngster watching Max Von Sydow and Dorothy McGuire, I thought, “Gee, it seems like they’d be more upset, what’s happening looks like it’s pretty bad”).

No, here when things are good, they’re good, and when they’re bad, they’re bad (though in PG-13 form, not as bad as they probably actually were, more closely matched historically by "The Passion of the Christ"). (Another rational production, for those interested, is the excellent A&E miniseries starring Jeremy Sisto and Gary Oldman; Sisto’s actually my favorite portrayal to date, and the DVD is currently available via Netflix).

My only disappointment with "Son of God" is its decision not to depict the full portrayal of the event in which Jesus cleared the temple of the money changers and their wares. As with many (most? all?) prior dramatizations, "Son of God" recounts the reports of Jesus’ scolding the merchants and toppling their tables, sending all their coins flying, and presents his emotional state primarily as offended and frustrated.

The full account, however, reports that before he overturned the tables, Jesus grabbed some nearby cords and fashioned a whip (a whip!), and then used it to drive the money changers and their livestock from the temple entirely. Offended and frustrated he may well have been, but Jesus was also clearly angry.

I can’t speak for other cultures, but in our American culture we have major hang-ups about anger: treating it as some kind of character flaw, we’re expected to smile and squelch it, causing it of course to build to intolerable levels and then vent sideways in the forms of passive aggression, road rage, unreasonable hostility, and other such damaging and unresolving techniques. It would have been nice to document here this model of an appropriately-proportioned response to a righteous anger. (But still we can look to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who of course modeled this beautifully.) (And note: Jesus wouldn't have whipped the individuals, he would have used it to steer them.)

"Son of God" is a wonderful film to have in the world.

People of its faith will enjoy and draw strength from it and find a pretty well perfect depiction for their kids to watch over and over and over, as kids are wont to do (screening in advance for the obvious, naturally). People curious about the faith will find a primer pointing them to further exploration of its foundational principles. And people not of the faith, or any faith at all, will find an easy vehicle whereby to gain a working understanding of their friends, co-workers, and people in the general community.

Had a I magic wand, or perhaps better said my prayer would be, that filmmakers of other faiths would consult with Burnett and Downey and their scholarly teams, and craft their own equivalents of "Son of God". How wonderful it would be to see its counterparts for Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and others.

The Burnett/Downey production will continue with "A.D.", following the acts of the apostles, scheduled as of this writing to air on NBC in 2015. Can’t wait!

Story: The story of Jesus of Nazareth from humble birth through resurrection and ascension.

Genre: Drama, Biography

Starring: Diogo Morgado, Sebastian Knapp, Darwin Shaw, Amber Rose Revah, Paul Marc Davis, Adrian Schiller, Greg Hicks, Roma Downey

Directed by: Christopher Spencer

Score: Hans Zimmer, Lorne Balfe, Lisa Gerrard

MPAA: PG-13

Running time: 138 minutes

Official sites: Website | Facebook

Houston release date: February 28, 2014

Tickets: Check Fandango, IMDb, or your local listings - group sales may also be available, contact your preferred theater directly for information

Screened Feb 13 2014 at the Edwards Grand Palace theater in Houston TX

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