When producers and directors get ready to give the public a new version of “The Nutcracker” or “Hamlet,” they may be tacitly asserting that they liked something in the original quite a bit and thought other things in it could be improved or updated. What would be the use of doing exactly the same version over and over again?
The new movie “Son of God” tells a little bit more than the life of Jesus—we get highlights from Genesis and a couple of other Old Testament books as well. In some ways the new film is like the old “Greatest Story Ever Told,” including in length. With previews, “Son of God” runs two hours and forty minutes.
Why re-make the older film? Only five of us in Manhattan can remember having seen the 1965 George Stevens picture, and it seems to me that probably a smaller percentage of the film-going public knows the story of the Gospels than has any other time during my life. And yet there was the Mel Gibson movie, the harrowing “The Passion of the Christ” just ten years ago.
So let’s figure this was director Christopher Spencer’s chance to tell a contemporary audience about the bulk of Jesus’s life, the period excluding the horrific three days leading up to Easter. For that matter, the Gibson movie did almost nothing with the Resurrection. Spencer could and does dramatize the events associated with the empty tomb with some effect.
Unfortunately, from my point of view, he also retells at some length Judas’s traitorous kiss, Jesus’s arrest, Pilate’s hand-washing, the crowd’s preference of Barabas, some whipping, the carrying of the cross, and the crucifixion itself. These are important events, and they are highly cinematic. But Gibson has put them on the screen recently, and his version is perhaps a more accurate recapitulation of the events as they are told in the New Testament. Besides, Gibson’s gritty movie is a lot more effective at what it attempts to do than is Spencer’s.
Which is not to say that the new film shies away from brutality or that the story doesn’t make one feel the tragedy of the brutal execution of the young prophet from Nazareth. Spencer and his actors have given us a creditable version of the Gospel story told by the dying John the disciple. So besides updating the look of the picture (too bad about the long-distance shots of computer-generated Jerusalem), “Son of God” is different than other re-tellings because it tries to give us the whole of Jesus’s life.
But then it also leaves something out. The new movie is not strong on recalling Jesus’s teachings. Now, The Sermon on the Mount doesn’t take all that much space in the text of the Bible, but it does seem to me that the ideas expressed there are what is important. Can a good movie about Jesus sample a couple of Beatitudes and go on without the Golden Rule?
Well, it may be that a good movie can’t include those things. Film is, excuse the cliché, a visual medium. Philosophic observations are not dramatic. Jesus is, of course, famous for using stories—parables—to dramatize ideas. But the basic concepts of Christianity are not, generally speaking, discussed in this film. And it might be a dull movie if it tried to relate them all.
Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if space aliens watching “Son of God” would understand why it was important that Jesus dies and is resurrected. Oh, he promises that the one thief on the cross next to him will be in paradise with him that day. And there may be another hint or two that Jesus’s dying has some significance to the future of the general public. Are hints enough?
Your answer to that question may determine the extent to which you find “Son of God” satisfactory. Certainly Spencer’s film uses some good visual casting to help us keep the characters straight. But his treatment of Pilate is melodramatic. And I can’t help but think those space aliens, when leaving a showing of the movie, might be wondering why the Gospels are known as “The Good News.” Though, to be fair, Gibson’s movie was even less successful at putting over that concept.