As a practicing believer, I think every Christian should see this film. There. I’ve said it. I’m a shameless shill for this movie, because as a pulpit preacher with a limited audience, I think this has the opportunity to reach so many more people than we ministers ever could on Sunday mornings.
Now, as an ordained PC(USA) clergyperson, and a lifelong student of the Bible, I’m aware that the editorial decisions here are legion. This movie does not attempt to do something as literal as follow one Gospel all the way through. The filmmakers pick and choose Gospel narratives, and sometimes conflate, and other times just make it up. But it’s unabashedly from the point of view of a believer, and unreservedly “preaches” Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. So, it should be enthusiastically embraced by churches despite its flaws.
Yes, if they were going to tell it from the perspective of the Apostle John, looking back on events from his solitary perch on the Island of Patmos, it seems like they missed an opportunity to tell the story strictly from his point of view. But the makers of this film choose not to do it that way. They include a birth narrative (but not what preceded it). They then fast-forward to the calling of Peter, which is refashioned a bit, but still impressive in the retelling. The character of Jesus is played by the veteran Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado, and thankfully, his portrayal successfully walks some very fine lines. He’s not too pretty, he’s not too smarmy, he’s not too smiley, he’s not too pompous — he seems both real and approachable but also obviously charismatic, and, at times, impulsively emotional. Morgado somehow appears to convey the compelling sense of personal presence that the historical Jesus must have had, and yet, there is also something enigmatic, even mysterious, about this unknown itinerant from Galilee who “changes the world” (they have Jesus saying this to invite Peter, which of course is not exactly biblically accurate, but perhaps acceptable poetic license).
It’s not completely fair to judge any film adaptation of the life of Jesus on what they leave out — because they can’t really include it all, anyway. However, some omissions are glaring, like the temptation scene, for example. It appears the filmmakers had an unforeseen difficulty here. They in fact tried to film this sequence, but the person they chose as the actor to play the devil had, in the opinion of many viewers, an unmistakable resemblance to the current president of the United States. So they reluctantly cut those scenes from the final version of the film.
And yes, as a critic, it’s difficult not to focus on those things which are needlessly bothersome, like the hokey shots of the scale model of Jerusalem, or the way-too-many shots of the weeping face of Mary on the Via Dolorosa (OK, the actress who played that part, Roma Downey, is the wife of the producer, Mark Bennett, so we understand that she would get her screen time). They make up stuff about the cruelty of the Romans, but probably are accurate in conveying the antipathy of the populace toward their foreign occupiers. But they do some things right, also: like the inspiring scene of the calling of Matthew, and the woman caught in adultery, and the feeding of the multitude.
Is it suitable for children? Well, the crucifixion scene is real (though the personal violence is not quite as insufferably egregious as in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”). But I would still want my elementary-school-aged grandchildren to see it. And everyone else in the family, too. For the believer, this one is a “must-see.”
RONALD P. SALFEN is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.