Perhaps the most damning criticism that can be directed at Son of God is that it feels terminally dispassionate. For all its earnest histrionics, the film plays for much of its length like a terrible sketch comedy with one-dimensional caricatures shuffling listlessly through a succession of stilted tableaux, setting the titular messenger of God up for his best known adages. It’s the world’s most uninspiring and interminable sermon, chopped into orchestrally underlined soundbites that are subsequently tossed into a narrative framework so loose and arbitrary that it borders on Pythonesque. Nearly every scene is an elaborate excuse for Portuguese model turned actor Diogo Morgado—in what might be the blandest, most charmless portrayal of Jesus Christ committed to film—to breathily utter yet another well-worn aphorism. It’s the bibilical equivalent of the latest Die Hard movie: a rote and sterile buildup to the hoped-for frisson that may or may not be generated by a violent climax and the protagonist’s familiar catchphrases.
The film’s staccato rhythms and narrative contrivances are unsurprising given the project’s genesis. A chopped-down version of The Bible, a 10-hour History Channel miniseries, it’s essentially a highlights reel repackaged for the same people who watched it the first time around. There’s a certain incongruity to director Christopher Spencer’s presentation of Christ’s life, from birth to resurrection, as an undisputed historical narrative intended originally for a platform whose programming is characterized by accounts of World War II and the Kennedy administration. As such, there’s no attempt to engage with the range of interpretations associated with Christian belief systems and little sense of Christ as man or god. This is a crippling shortcoming for what’s basically a biopic, especially in light of its lofty subject. After all, the only real access point we have to the “greatest story ever told” is its human element.
In this iteration, Christ is a handsome and otherworldly cipher—an aggregation of condensed teachings who does nothing to amplify or elucidate his pronouncements. Neither Morgado’s limited range (he alternates between a faintly smug smile and a furrowed brow through most of the movie) nor the execrable writing help matters. Christ’s words are plucked from scripture and set, unaltered, in the midst of relatively naturalistic and occasionally contemporary-sounding dialogue. The results are often comical as followers frequently ask Christ a straightforward question only to get a cryptic metaphorical answer that appears to have little to do with what was previously said.
It’s unforgiveable for a film based on rich material such as this to be so tooth-grindingly banal. All but the most ardent believers will find themselves checking their watches and reminiscing fondly about bibilical adaptations that actually communicate the thematic knottiness and enduring relevance of the source texts. Son of God doesn’t have the emotional heft of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ or the intellectual ambition of Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew. It even fails to muster the base, incoherent, but altogether genuine force of belief that lurks so malevolently behind Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. All the gaudy production design in the world can’t disguise the essential soullessness on display here, the ugly Michael Bay-lite aesthetic, the amateur-hour performances, the inability to provoke a spark of emotion in anyone not already primed for rapture. It can’t even pull off distastefulness with any style. The routine blaming of Christ’s death on the Jews by way of Caiaphas feels more quaint than anything, like the half-hearted racism of an old relative kept hidden from polite company. Its inoffensiveness is ultimately the most offensive thing about it.