Son of God is aiming for a winsome Jesus

Posted: March 7, 2014 at 2:08 a.m.

Mary (Roma Downey, who also produced) and Joseph (Joe Coen) go looking for lodging in Bethlehem in the straigh forwardly Christian Son of God.

You might assume doing a sit-down interview with Jesus, Mary and mega-producer Mark Burnett would be a bit daunting, but as it happens, it’s a breeze. Mary (in actuality actress Roma Downey), wearing a jaunty red leather jacket, upon seeing my name, inquires about my nationality (“Are you Irish?” the Northern Ireland native asks hopefully). Jesus (Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado) is nothing but kindness and genuine smiles. And Mark Burnett, Downey’s husband, and he of the Survivor, The Apprentice and The Voice empires, seems genuinely interested in the logistics of the interview process itself; he keeps offering to sit out the TV interview because he knows how technically difficult it can be to conduct an interview shoot with three subjects all sitting next to one another. (We get by.)

The three of them are in town to promote Son of God, the feature-length movie more or less culled from existing footage from Downey and Burnett’s Emmy-winning History Channel mini-series, The Bible. Essentially, they took all the Jesus parts from the series and put them together into one film, with additional footage added (and removed, as in the case with the controversial casting of Satan, played by Moroccan actor Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni, who was, to some conservative pundits, a dead ringer for President Obama).

This is hardly the first cinematic portrayal of Jesus in recent years, so I ask the trio about their interpretation compared to two well known films about him, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and Mel Gibson’s bloody The Passion of the Christ. Neither Downey nor Burnett had seen Scorsese’s film, which controversially involves Jesus as a man wrestling with the same temptations as the rest of us en route to becoming divine. Morgado, while acknowledging that he has seen the film, also mostly demurs in commenting on its more provocative aspects. “It’s an interpretation,” he says. “When we have good art, it is what we want it to be, an expression of whatever story we’re trying to tell.”

As for Gibson’s hugely popular rendition of the end of the Passion (wherein Jesus is arrested, publicly flogged,tried and finally condemned to the cross), Downey suggests their film is a more complete version of Jesus’ life. “We wanted to have people have the opportunity to get to know Jesus, to fall in love with Jesus, really,” she says. “So by the time he is arrested, and put on trial and crucified, that you are already deeply invested and care about him.”

According to Downey, Jesus himself hadn’t appeared on the big screen for a decade, and his complete story hadn’t for nearly 50 years. (I don’t ask, but presumably she’s referring to The Greatest Story Ever Told from 1965; she’s excluding Jesus Christ Superstar in her calculation, no Andrew Lloyd Webber fan, she). Thus, this version will be “the very first time [an audience] will get to experience as a cinematic presentation the life of Jesus. For many kids in particular, this might be the first time that they see the story.”

The Bible was a massive hit for the History Channel last year, its five two-hour episodes viewed by an average of 15 million viewers, a massive number in cable TV annals, so you can well see Downey’s and Burnett’s thinking on this one: Extrapolate the break-out star of the series and give him his own due on the big screen.Despite its humble TV beginnings, however, Burnett sees this film as nothing less than a full-scale epic. “We’ve got aerial shots and special effects of the enormity of the Temple, and the walking on water,” he says, describing the film as a “political thriller.”

“We wanted to make this with a young cast - Diogo happens to be 33, the same age Jesus was when he died - then we’ve also got all the disciples in their early 30s,” he says. “You can identify and see what it was like to be them. It was that authenticity that was really a big deal for me.”

“It has this scale on the one hand,” Downey agrees, “and yet deeply intimate on the other. I think this will anchor the story for many people, so when they go back to Scripture, or church, it will be informed with the images from this film. It can bring a new aliveness to this story that maybe they’ve already known.”

Easily the best parts of the film are when Morgado adds little flourishes to make his otherwise saintly character seem altogether human, such as when he bends down on a Jerusalem street and playfully pokes a young girl with his finger and laughs when she giggles at him, one small moment in a film given to much larger miracles, a point with which Downey readily agrees.

“There’s a scene when he gets on the boat the first time he meets Peter, and Jesus wades out waist deep in the water and flops into the boat with such a smile on his face that we can hear the audience laughing. Those are the moments you wouldn’t get in the Scripture. This is filling out a personality to give the audiences the opportunity to fall in love with him.”

For the good-natured Morgado, his ease with children as Jesus was far from an accident: “They flew me into Jerusalem and while I was doing my research, I saw this father and his young kid praying by the [Wailing] Wall,” he explains. “I stopped and realized whatever I was about to do would be tremendously [influential] on this kid’s life, more than anyone else. Because there would not be misinterpretations, it would be an innocent, pure connection between the figure of Jesus and that kid. The figure of Jesus would be speaking directly to him, through love. I got that the only way of facing this would be to put myself available to that kind of love, and that’s exactly what I did.”

It’s a portrayal that, if successful, will lead to the kind of roller coaster emotion Downey refers to when she says viewers will wish the story could somehow end differently. “I think the beauty of the experience, unlike other movies that have ended the story with the Crucifixion, it goes on with the story of the Resurrection, which is really the most [affecting] part of the story,” she says. “Because he died, yes, but he came back.”

MovieStyle, Pages 38 on 03/07/2014