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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014

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Diogo Morgado stars as Jesus Christ in "Son of God," now playing.
Diogo Morgado stars as Jesus Christ in "Son of God," now playing.

Blessed art thou who skippeth "Son of God"

"Son of God," the latest cinematic retelling of the saga of Jesus Christ, isn’t based on the much-ballyhooed History Channel miniseries "The Bible." It literally is "The Bible," albeit vigorously edited down from ten hours to 138 minutes with some deleted scenes added in for a bonus. To call "Son of God" a new movie is like a date reheating leftovers and saying he cooked dinner for you, then asking for $10 to cover the cost. And it was Chinese takeout to begin with.

To be fair, this isn’t the first time a TV mini-series has been brought to the big screen. Michael Winterbottom’s "The Trip," most recently, was originally a TV series before it was edited down into a two-hour movie. However, that was originally aired on the BBC in the United Kingdom. "The Bible" was a widely promoted television "event" on a basic cable network, already watched by millions.              

It rings more than a little exploitative to charge audiences – some of whom perhaps going based on a sense of faith-based obligation – $10 to see an extremely condensed version of a film they’ve already seen for free (plus scenes that somehow weren’t worthy of the ten-hour cut), reskinned, retitled and resold as something new.

Also, "The Trip" was a good movie. "Son of God" is not, though it should be commended for accurately recreating the soul-sucking boredom of watching a dull and uninspired ten-hour film into one-fourth the running time. Hmm … "commended" may not be the word I’m looking for.

After sprinting through the Old Testament chapters in a manner that’s only missing a voiceover proclamation of "Previously on ‘The Bible,’" "Son of God" dives into, well, the son of God, played by handsome Portuguese soap opera actor Diogo Morgado. He’s first seen emerging from a desert via an attempt at an epic "Lord of the Rings"-esque helicopter shot, ready to find some followers.

What ensues is pretty much a clunky, disconnected highlight reel of Jesus’ story. Fish and loaves are multiplied. Blind and dead are healed. Raging CG waters are unconvincingly trotted across. The miracles and teachings build Jesus’ following, all the while building up rage amongst the Jewish high priests (who the movie rather uneasily goes out of its way to constantly frame as the clear villains of the story, adding in scenes of dark-room conniving, murderous crowd-riling and cross-editing crucifixions with Jewish prayer).

These are stories that have inspired billions, yet there is no inspiration to be found in "Son of God." The TV-ready special effects – especially during Jesus’ walk on water – only help to underline the film’s small screen origins, and the editing barely even bothers covering up the moments where it feels a commercial break would go.

Meanwhile, director Christopher Spencer recreates the events of the Jesus’ story with almost no attempt at visual creativity, inventive interpretation or spark of imagination. Never has the miraculous felt so drearily mundane.

The movie’s biggest problem, however, turns out to be, well, Jesus himself (awaits bolt of lightning). The script is too literal and reverent to give him much humanity, and he’s neither performed nor written with enough screen presence to make him feel otherworldly or special. Not that his disciples are given much more other than one note (Thomas doubts, Judas betrays, etc.).

In fact, as played by Morgado, he’s less King of the Jews and more King of the snooze. When he rages through the temple, Morgado barely seems angry enough to flip a single table over, and the way he playfully tells a little girl about the impending destruction of the temple plays as though something was lost in translation from page to performance. Out of all of Christ’s miracles in "Son of God," his most incredible might be that he’s managed to create such an impassioned following while lifelessly preaching from the Gospel of Drawn-Out Dramatic Pauses and exuding more smug self-satisfaction than contagious charisma.

It’d certainly be a new angle on the story, but considering the movie’s overall slavishly devoted reverence and intentions, this smirkingly contented savior was undoubtedly unintentional.

After blandly marching its way through Jesus’ miracles and teachings, "Son of God" finally climaxes with the Passion. Give credit where it’s due: It’s less pornographically violent than Mel Gibson’s relentless take (and it doesn’t leave everything else as simply a footnote to the bloodshed).

However, sitting through the same laborious slow motion tripping, the same beats – as well as beatings – and the same endless sobbing, mostly from Mary (Roma Downey, who produced this and the miniseries with husband Mark Burnett), drag out feels like just as much of a masochistic endurance for the audience. All the while, Morgado’s absent performance and Spencer’s cheap, affect-less direction make all the misery register emotionally as deep as a flesh wound.

By the time the credits roll, "Son of God" winds up as moving and inspirational as one of those prayer cards received trick-or-treating on Halloween. I'd like to give it credit for having a sincere devotion to sharing the Greatest Story Ever Told, but its discreet trail from TV to $10 "new release" rings my cynicism alarm and loudly. Even the word of God and Hans Zimmer’s thunderously pounding score can't completely muffle the sound of dollar signs in producers' eyes going "ka-ching!"

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