It seems that movie theaters this year are going to be filled with religious-themed films. Later this month, a widely-anticipated adaptation of the story of Noah and the flood is set to his theaters, with a major production of Exodus slated for release in December (although, in my mind, it’s going to be nearly impossible to create anything that rivals The Ten Commandments). There is also a film adaptation of the book Heaven is For Real that will be coming soon. Through the year, I hope to comment on each of these films from a Catholic perspective. But first, as is fitting, we start with Jesus.
Yesterday afternoon, I saw the newly-released theatrical movie Son of God – the first major film telling the entire life story of Jesus in over a generation. Adapted from last year’s History Channel mini-series The Bible, this film takes its place alongside some of the great depictions of the gospel story, including King of Kings (1961), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), and Jesus of Nazareth (1977). And, of course, there is also The Passion of the Christ (2004), portraying just the culminating few days of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection.
At this point … SPOILERS AHEAD! Overall, I thought the film was well made and presents a good overview of the life and ministry of Jesus – but particularly of the events that surrounded his death and resurrection. The Passion Narrative portion of the film is its greatest strength and had a number of moving moments – Peter’s conviction turned to heartbreak turned to deeper faith in his denial of Jesus, the faith and love of Simon of Cyrene, and Nicodemus chanting the Kaddish – the Jewish mourning prayer – as Mary bathes the dead body of her son in preparation for burial. The personal relationships that Jesus has with the people around him are highlighted throughout – I was particularly struck by the way Peter’s relationship with Jesus grew and matured through the film. Of course, the central role of Peter as the leader of the disciples comes straight from Scripture and is particularly meaningful for Catholics – as is a moving scene of Peter “presiding” at a celebration of the Eucharist as the first act of the disciples/Church after they learn of the resurrection. And unlike some other film portrayals of the life of Jesus, Son of God made clear that Jesus gave the disciples a mission to continue after his Ascension, and there are very clear signs by the end of the film that this mission has begun.
One of the greatest struggles of film adaptations of the gospels is to portray Jesus as both human and divine – and, appropriate to it’s title, Son of God seems to me to tend so much toward the divine that the human in Jesus is minimized – at least until the crucifixion. One of the most human moments of the gospels occurs at the death of Lazarus, when Jesus weeps for his friend before raising him from the dead. But in the film, there is no weeping. Martha is crying, but not Jesus. He goes to the tomb and raises Lazarus, but no tears. This change from the biblical narrative is one of many minor changes throughout the film – and it drove the biblical scholar in me crazy as I was watching! Jesus reading from Isaiah in the synagogue happens at the very beginning of his ministry in Luke’s gospel – but in the film, it happens almost at the end. Peter very clearly denies Jesus during the night – Jesus even says so in this film – but it is definitely daylight when these denials happen in the movie. In the film, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again of the Spirit – but in the Gospel of John, he must be born again of water and the Spirit. And there are a number of other examples of tampering with the biblical text – I suppose for the sake of the larger narrative.
Which leads me to my caution in viewing and discussing this film – it is an adaptation of the biblical story of Jesus, helpful for inspiration and catechesis, but no substitute for reading and studying the Gospel narratives themselves. No film can replace the Gospels. And this one is perhaps better than some – giving us a great entry point for conversations about how Jesus is both divine and human, what the role of Peter was as leader of the apostles and the Church, how a personal relationship with Jesus is at the heart of our living of the faith, the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, the institution of the Eucharist, and the transition from Jesus to Church. But it’s not perfect and cannot replace a faithful reading of Scripture.