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“The Bible”. . . Redux Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 10 March 2014

Hardly a sign of approaching apocalypse, but Hollywood appears to be rediscovering the Bible as epic source material. The Biblical epic was once a movie staple: Cecil B. DeMille’s silent, King of Kings (1927) – remade by Nicholas Ray (1961) – DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959); George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and (for TV) Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977). And then there was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, truly an outlier in 2004.

But a decade after Passion, comes Christopher Spencer’s re-edit of last year’s Roma Downey-Mark Burnett-produced miniseries, The Bible, in theaters now as Son of God (just New Testament material this go-round). At the end of this month will come Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, and, in December, Ridley Scott’s Exodus, although expect less Bible and more Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in those two, as befits the films’ edgy superstars: Russell (Gladiator) Crowe as Noah and Christian (Batman) Bale as Moses.

As the casting of Crowe and Bale may prove, an actor needn’t be religious to act in a religious film: not every actor is Jim Caviezel or Eduardo Verástegui, two performers who take seriously their Catholic faith.

And if producers such as Mr. Burnett, of TV projects such as Survivor, and his wife and collaborator, Ms. Downey, famous for TV’s Touched by an Angel, had to employ only saints in the making of their media (or be saints themselves), they’d produce nothing. Good Christians loved The Passion of the Christ despite Mel Gibson’s peculiar life choices, so there ought to be no impediment to loving Son of God. None, that is, except the film itself.

The Bible aired last year on The History Channel, and Variety, the bible of the movie biz, termed it “hugely popular.” Logically, if you liked the miniseries, you may well like this big-screen rerun. Variety describes Son of God, as a “clumsily edited feature-length version of five episodes of The Bible” that is actually “a cynical cash grab.”

And speaking of cash, if you were thinking of taking the kids to see Son of God, consider that going to the theater will set you back at least $60 (two adults, two children, plus popcorn and sodas), whereas the entire Bible miniseries is out on DVD for about half that.

No spoiler alerts are necessary – we all know the story – but I must spoil the gleeful mood of anyone who, without screening the film, considers it a must-see, which I assume is principally the consequence of the aforementioned dearth of recent Biblical movies. Movie-loving Christians, a parched people, cry out for water in the desert, after which, in this case, comes dysentery.

Son of God is the worst-ever greatest story ever told.


        Some CGI from S.O.G.


The film is ostensibly based upon the Gospel of John. He is the first character we meet, crouching in his cave of exile, as he begins narrating the story of Jesus.

There is but the faintest, fading flicker of John’s intensely theological account. Son of God owes more to Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told, although it lacks that film’s cinematic scope and narrative power. Son of God is far too constrained to be an epic. Much of the movie consists of very tight shots – a technique designed to squeeze the most out of The Bible’s budget.

We see Jesus first as he emerges from fasting in the desert and heads straight to the Sea of Galilee, where Simon bar Jonah, stowing his nets in frustration, is giving up for the day. Jesus calls to him:

“Peter!”

Simon looks up. He seems to recognize that name, although Jesus did not actually call him ‘Peter’ until several years after their first meeting. Every filmmaker “telescopes” in order to get audiences quickly into a story, but a great many segues in Son of God are incongruous and jarring. It’s almost as if the film is aimed at the people who fall asleep in church, or who learned the Gospel at the movies. Better to fall asleep at Son of God and pay attention in church. The heavy-lidded Diogo Morgado, who plays Jesus, certainly seems on the verge of dozing off during much of the film.

Besides Peter and John, we see Matthew and see and hear Thomas (Matthew Gravelle in the film’s only interesting performance) and, of course, Judas, but the other seven Apostles seem hardly there – except for Mary Magdalene (Amber Rose Revah), who is in nearly all of the scenes involving the Twelve. In one scene in which the band of brothers sets off to Jerusalem – among the few wide shots in the film and the only of sufficient length to allow a body count – she’s there. Jesus and the Twelve, by my count. And Mary’s the twelfth!

It’s unclear if this indicates the New Age sensibility detected by many critics of The Bible miniseries, although in this regard it may be worth noting that the once-divorced Mr. Burnett and the twice-divorced Ms. Downey were married in 2007 (tabloid headline: “Survivor Creator Weds Cancelled Angel”) by Ms. Downey’s Touched co-star Della Reese.

Ms. Downey-Orser-Anspaugh-Burnett also plays the older Blessed Virgin.

Messrs. Aronofsky and Scott will employ the best technicians of computer-generated imagery (CGI) for floods and parting waters and such, but of course the budget for Noah is $130,000,000 and for Exodus is, in Scott’s words, “f---ing huge.” The CGI in Son of God looks as if it might have been done by a clever middle-school kid with money left unspent from last week’s allowance.

Squeezing a miniseries and a movie out of just $22,000,000 is very efficient, just not very effective.

 
Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is the author of six books and is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His book, The Compleat Gentleman, read by Christopher Lane, is available on audio.
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (22)Add Comment
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written by Jack,CT, March 10, 2014
Fantastic Brad! Thx
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written by grump, March 10, 2014
Ben-Hur was the best of the biblical bunch because it never showed Jesus' face. The guy in SOG looks like a California surfer who might start off the Sermon of the Mount with, "Yo, dudes." The wooden Russell Crowe as Noah? Not the best casting choice. I still remember him as the only guy who couldn't sing a lick in Les Miserables.
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written by Stephanie Richer, March 10, 2014
Amen! Someone who found it as bad as I did. I wanted to like it, I really did, but it was simply dreck, notwithstanding a deacon at my church castigating me for saying so, whereas he pronounced it "excellent."

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written by DC Garvin, March 10, 2014
Thanks for this honest review. My daughter was asking if she should take the kids to see it. I was obsessed w/ every aspect of Passion of the Christ, and to this day, believe it was/is the only truly anointed film representation of Christ on film, but my interest in Burnett/Romey version has been tepid at best ... this review provided some clarity on that end, a few LOLs. As far as Mel's strange behaviors in the aftermath of The Passion, there should be no doubt or surprise that this Christian in process was and is under the most extreme assaults from the devil and his minions for what he dared to do. St. Michael the Archangel, defend him in battle, and all those who earnestly seek to spread the Gospel.
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written by Tony Esolen, March 10, 2014
We desperately need good movies, but the technology has made it so damned expensive to make any movie at all, it prices almost everybody right out of the possibility right from the start.

I've taken lately to watching old movies, almost all of them in black and white, and episodes of the Twilight Zone. After watching movies by Ford, Capra, Stevens, Wyler, Kazan, Hawks, Hitchcock, McCarey, etc., almost any movie made since 1985 seems unwatchable. Overdone, look-at-me cinematography, bombastic music, actors who never did a hard day's manual labor in their lives, directors and screenplay writers who never knew The Story ... dialogue that sounds as if it came from a Creative Writing workshop, forty year old teenagers trying to pretend that they know what real adults think and feel ... anticlimax upon anticlimax, noise substituting for drama ...
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written by Patti Day, March 10, 2014
Thank you for telling it as it is. I won't bother seeing the movie, as I turned off the miniseries presentation on the History Channel last year early on, went back to give it another chance, and was finally fed up by the portrayal of Mary Magdalene as Jesus' gal pal.
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written by Bruce, March 10, 2014
Why indulge your ego at the expense of your soul. Isn't God's divine Love constant and one dimensional (meaning all-encompassing and in no need of a negative to balance the positive)? I thought Jesus was sent down from Heaven to witness and restore a new covenant with humankind. Doesn’t his teaching lead us to the spiritual awaking God has planned for us rather than just reinforce Moses’ Law? Why can't we take the film for what it is worth and realize that the bigger message being conveyed is in fact that "The Son of God" is in fact the greatest story ever told because it is of God's design not ours. Last time I checked none of present day humanity was alive to witness firsthand the reality of Jesus' day. Further, if anyone had been living back then and were able to tell the account today - it would be through human eyes and our limited perception of the Truth. Jesus lives today as the Holy Spirit gifted to us and it is collectively through our eyes that we witness a better understanding of his message. The Whole Truth is captured by our Creator who has given life to us as the creation. It is only when we surrender to His will and offer ourselves for His purpose that we begin to see glimpses of the Real Truth. The bigger message that I see being fostered from this movie has nothing to do with $s or with the producers interpretive detail as to what transpired over 2000 years ago - it has everything to do with exposing Jesus and His message to the world in order to save ourselves from our own damnation. This is just one more perspective from a fellow Christian who hasn't screened the movie but is beginning to understand the message. Thanks for listening.
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written by Athanasius, March 10, 2014
Whereas I don't disagree with the technical points above, I still enjoyed the movie. It did seem to jump around a bit chronologically, and Mary Magdelene did have a bigger role than the gospels would suggest. but I did not find anything theologically troubling.

For me, the Jesus of Nazareth miniseries is still the gold standard, but that had 8 hours to tell the story. And this was far from the worst. The Jesus miniseries from 10-12 years ago was probably the worst depiction I have ever seen on screen, and the Broadway Jesus Christ Superstar is the very worst I have ever seen.

Still, if SOG gets people to want to learn more about the real Jesus, then isn't that a good thing?
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written by william manley, March 10, 2014
What man can play act the son of God? The result is inevitably less than divine, and therefore it is a form of theatrical blasphemy to try. Grump got it right. Ben Hur is the best of a bad lot because we do not see the face of God. Given this, do these movies help or hinder the "new evangelization?" I'm not sure.
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written by jim l. sekerak, March 10, 2014
I just finished Miner's critique of the film and am going to see it later to-day. The Catholic church-goers I spoke with (none of whom sleep during mass) were all very enthusiastic re. its content. I was dubious but set that aside after seeing the couple's interview on EWTN. I'm still going if only to support the notion that religious stories are worth making and hope that the Holy Spirit can work through them regardless of their skewed depiction. Ps. Is there a prayer for the H.S.?Even 'he' might need encouragement when facing the gods of Hollywood.
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written by maineman, March 10, 2014
I saw the film, largely to support the box office, last weekend and have to agree with Mr. Miner from a critical standpoint.

On the other hand, I was not bored and thought it represented an honest effort from the standpoint of reminding our deteriorated culture that we/He is still here with us. The many failures noted above seem to demonstrate how difficult it is to make a film about such material, so perhaps we should be grateful for whatever makes it on the popular radar screen.

I am entirely with Mr. Esolen, though. For the past few years, 1960 has been my cut-off, violated rarely. Even the 1950's get very spotty.
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written by George L, March 10, 2014
I went to see the SOG and enjoyed the movie. It was done well with a good purpose in mind, but you could tell it was put together by bits and pieces. The best one that I have ever seen was Jesus of Nazareth, which I feel was well done and cover a good bit of the story. Although 8 hours long it was well done and kept me interested. Being a Catholic I found this one to be close to the Bible. But for a 2:20 movie it was done well.
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written by Ken Torrens, March 10, 2014
I was swept up in the first moments and then mostly bored and disappointed that it was only "OK". I don't believe we should be afraid or politically incorrect to judge/review the film negatively, as long as we base a review on serious points. I found Diogo to be a decent Jesus, but it was the script and storytelling that was so disappointing. If you name the movie "Son of God" it just follows that you ought to be following some type of theological line of reasoning to prove your point; they didn't. This is the essence of the problem of modern evangelical 'feel good' christianity that doesn't really get the elements of salvation history that point not only to Jesus, but tie together Judaical sacrificial life with the new covenant bread of life discourses that became the sacramental Eucharist of the apostolic church. They didn't even display Jesus as a good Jew celebrating Passover, with its very specific prayer language of God's saving love, but rather had Jesus inviting his friends over for a meal...REALLY?!! They made it seem as though the death of Jesus was only a result of the political climate rather than the contradistinction of the progressive unfolding of God's revelation coming face to face with humanity's sin. Without these elements explored, Jesus is just another man, and his resurrection no more important than that of Lazarus. Lastly, I understand interpreting and developing a plot scene and giving Jesus words to say, that makes sense, but why do they unquote Jesus' Biblical speech; this was not translation but in many spots a hack job on important theological points. I do hope it makes money and supports more serious endeavors of retelling the most important life in the history of this planet.
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written by John Schuh, March 10, 2014
I agree that one can see that it was made from pieces of a TV production, and I think that the choice of the lead was wrong. The man is simply too well fed to be a man of that time, and his bright smile is disconcerting since he displays it so much. As to special effects, I do think that the walking on the waters sequence was actually one of the best versions I have seen. One petty detail that bothers me. As in almost all such pictures Jesus is shown with a head covering. It got very hot and cold in Galilee and Judea.
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written by John Schuh, March 10, 2014
The narrative was indeed quite choppy during the part of the film that showed his mission in Galilee. What I though worked best was the walking on the waters with its judicious cutting. The raising of Lazarus was out of sync with the Gospel narrative and does not show the personal relationship with him and the sisters. It gets much better beginning with the Last Supper.
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written by Jeri Szymusiak, March 10, 2014
I have never read such negatives comments in my life. I went to this movie not because I cared who played what part, but for the message it conveyed. I do facebook for my parish & urged everyone to see it. Of all my friends who have gone to different theaters & at different times not one had a complaint & most said the crowd was pleased & most cried. Like I said on facebook, this is a movie people, & no one knows what Jesus looked like, so who are you to judge. If you got nothing out of this movie, do you think maybe it is you that has a problem? Why not comment on some of the filth & violence being shown? I can't believe some of the trash our kids are going to see! And you're complaining about a good, wholesome movie because they didn't spend enough or the actor was too charismatic? If it's not to your liking, just don't go! But don't trash it just because you don't like who played what.
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written by ken tremendous, March 10, 2014
Good review Brad....way to resist the instinct to praise something out of tribal loyalty just because it tells the Christian story.

I have to disagree with Tony Esolen though. A close look at the movie industry will reveal two things. Films run with big name actors and studios and massive ad budgets are getting hugely expensive to produce yes...but these films all tend to follow a very predetermined structure that is analytically tested in advance. And the big budgets mean that over time there will be fewer of them.

However...it does not take $100 million to make a great movie or even $1 million. Technology has actually democratized things so that good movies can be produced for relatively little money, provided that expensive locations,really big name actors are avoided and social media is the main marketing.

Catholics could be making these sorts of movies you know. The real problem is the structural problem that too many creative people who would and could make great movies with Christian themes tend to be put off by Christianity as a whole.

And you are not going to like this.... but part of the problem here has to do in the US with Christianity's and Catholicism's increasing identification with conservative politics that really tends to repel more creative people.

But to the extent that anything Catholic is that which is good, beautiful and true, we will continue to see good "Catholic" films..both major production as well as indies!!
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written by CK, March 10, 2014
Never trust the popular media to do an appropriate depiction of God or Christianity. There is always agenda, things will always be shaded and shifted to a non-traditional view. This is how the evil one attempts to undermine things. It could be the sequencing, the inappropriate closeness of the shots, the unspoken ideas and images presented. These entertainment vehicles are made for profit, and shifting of Christian values to popular secular agendas. Yes they at least acknowledge Christ but only for the ultimate purpose of infecting the beliefs of the uninformed and influencing believers to consider otherwise unacceptable ideas about Christ and the Church...
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written by grump, March 10, 2014
Tony, "The Blair Witch Project" cost $60,000 to make and grossed nearly $250 million worldwide. Junk sells. There have been some good low-budget movies over the years but you can count them on one hand after a bad lawn mower accident.
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written by Ken Torrens, March 10, 2014
I agree with so many of you that really good projects can be done on relatively small budgets. The issue here, again for me, is that we are dealing with not just a story but the revelation of God, which I think demands a serious script and proper historical/theological perspective. Would it be so awful to get 25% of the story told properly over 2-3hrs and wait a year or two for the next parts. After all, we are sequel savvy in this generation, waiting 28 yrs for 6 Star Wars, endless re-tellings of Spiderman and James Bond, three 3+hr Lord of the Rings, etc. The Christian masses are so hungry for this, and if a project was done really really well, they might actually understand how Judaism naturally progressed into Catholicism (liturgy,sacraments,tradition,Bible) vs some idea that the Bible exists unto itself; and, you might actually capture the non-believer with fantastic imagery of the wonders of God acting amongst His people.
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written by TomD, March 11, 2014
@ ken tremendous: "... identification with conservative politics that really tends to repel more creative people."

I'm not sure what you mean by your specific reference to "conservative politics," if you meant to emphasize the less-than-savory aspects of politics in your comment - and as if there is something uniquely "repellent" in conservative politics, as opposed to liberal politics - but, in my response to your comment, I will concentrate on the term conservative and say this: it is easier, in a sense, for creative people to be liberal or non-traditional. Pushing the envelope is the stock-in-trade of the modern creative mind and of the arts today, and people who are inclined to do so tend to be drawn to creative activity.

This wasn't always true, but it seems to be true today. Of course, it may, in fact, ultimately depend more on who the creative gate keepers are; they control who gets to express themselves in the mass culture, through the institutions and powers that manufacture/distribute that culture. Today, those institutions and powers, especially the most dominant and influential ones, are almost completely controlled by the left. Even Disney.

It is much, much harder - more of an intellectual and artistic challenge - to coax out the essence of something when you approach it from a traditional point of view and have respect for a traditional understanding of reality, rather than trying to undermine tradition. Said another way, deconstructing and criticizing is easier, and much more fun for the modern creative mind, than building and enhancing. Yes, this is a generality, and there are exceptions on the artistic left, but they are the exception and not the rule.

The arts should both expand our understanding of reality, by challenging traditional ideas, and build upon our understanding of reality, by further developing traditional ideas. Today, the arts are almost completely dominated by the former, often with a particularly slanted, negative critique of tradition and conservative ideas.

When expressing ourselves as a culture becomes primarily an act of political/social/cultural dissent and change, we lose something essential in what the arts ought to be and do.
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written by ken tremendous, March 14, 2014
There are no creative "gatekeepers". The reality is that if you are artistic and think outside the proverbial box and you come from a religiously conservative background and live in a small town or sprawling exurb where most religiously oriented people are found...you will find yourself unappreciated and probably seen as weird. You'll end up in New York or Chicago or Seattle or San Francisco. There are exceptions as always but this is generally what happens

There is a huge problem here. Just walk into a Church built in the last 30 years and see what Catholics and Evangelicals of more recent vintage regard as "art" ....their tastes are uniformly tacky, kitsch and overall lousy...then listen to what they think is good music. Then take a spin through their neighborhoods. All the houses look the same...the same insipid unimaginative landscaping outside. Then drive around their towns....one strip mall after another with the same stores and every place looking the same as every other place. Real creative...how they design their parking lots.

Then see what they eat...they all think the Olive Garden is the tastiest most authentic ethnic restaurant in town...and the food at Chipotle is daring but a little "spicy."

Christianity in America in other words is culturally bereft. There is a broader structural problem here. Until this changes expect the left to dominate the culture..because the culture of middle America..well that's a contradiction in terms

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