Throughout cinematic history, the greatest story ever told has been told and told again.
The most memorable and successful version, box office-wise at least, happens to be the most brutal one to watch. In 2004, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," a graphic R-rated take on the crucifixion, earned a staggering $370 million domestically and more than $610 million internationally, kicking off a fiery debate. Other memorable takes include 1965's long-winded "The Greatest Story Ever Told," and Martin Scorsese's controversial "The Last Temptation of Christ" in 1988.
The latest retelling is "Son of God," produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, the husband-and-wife force behind the epic-sized 2013 TV miniseries "The Bible," a runaway ratings hit for The History Channel that begot major DVD sales as well. And what this well-intentioned film lacks in poise and polish, it makes up for in what faith-based audiences so hungrily seek: a passionate and compassionate interpretation for family viewing that portrays the Christ story with reverence.
The theatrical release, reportedly at a cost of $22 million, has been winning advance raves from high-profile ministers, including Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes. Producers Burnett (better known as the producer of "Survivor") and Downey (of "Touched by an Angel" fame) appear to have taken a cue from Gibson's playbook and publicized the film through churches. A study guide also accompanies the film.
To tell Jesus Christ's story on the big screen, Burnett and Downey have created a bit of a mash-up, repurposing parts of "The Bible" episodes, adding some new ones, and deleting others (notably, there is no role here for Satan, who appeared in the miniseries portrayed by an actor who looked an awful lot like President Barack Obama).
While TV segments provide a foundation, the end result is less than seamless. The choppily edited patchwork technique -- combined with modest production values and uneven special effects -- likely will make "Son of God" less appealing to the kind of mainstream crowd that might be drawn to "Noah," another big-budgeted, biblical-themed spectacle opening March 28, just in time for Easter.
But comparing "Son of God" to Darren Aronfosky's "Noah" with Russell Crowe and to Ridley Scott's December release of "Exodus" with Christian Bale as Moses isn't fair, nor is it the point.
The goal of "Son of God" appears to be to inspire and move the audience spiritually -- to evangelize, if you will. And while I can't claim to know the aspirations of the other films, I suspect neither intends spreading the word as their primary reason for being.
Does "Son of God" achieve its goals? Sometimes, especially when Hans Zimmer's moving soundtrack sets the mood in several key pivotal moments. It's also refreshing to see the film depict some of Christ's teachings, from turning the other cheek to celebrating all God's creations.
Director Christopher Spencer does a competent job with the crucifixion -- much less bloody and explicit than in "The Passion of the Christ" -- and the Last Supper. He is less successful when it comes to the resurrection and creating Christ's miracles.
The screenplay, by Nic Young, Richard Bedser, Spencer and Colin Swash, benefits from incorporating some of the politics of the period, a move that provides a welcome, if briefly explored, historical subtext and leads us to the best performance of the film -- from Shakespearean actor Greg Hicks as Pontius Pilate. Hicks brings dramatic gravitas, something that's lacking in Diogo Morgado's Jesus.
Jesus is one of the most difficult roles an actor can face, and while the handsome Morgado, a beloved actor from Portugal who was selected as one of GQ's Men of the Year, has a strong yet benevolent presence, it's hard not to ponder how Jesus managed to get his teeth so shiny white back before the advent of Crest White Strips. Other performances are solid if not entirely distinctive, except for Darwin Shaw who makes a fine Peter.
Anchoring a film around a figure from religion is fraught with challenges. While "Son of God" isn't as accomplished as Gibson's or Scorsese's versions, it does shine a bright light on Christ's teachings. For many in the audience, that will be what truly matters.
Rating: PG-13 (for intense and bloody depiction of the crucifixion and for some sequences of violence)
Cast: Diogo Morgado, Roma Downey, Greg Hicks, Adrian Schiller, Darwin Shaw
Director: Christopher Spencer
Running time: 2 hours,