Producer Mark Burnett and actors Darwin Shaw and Diogo Morgado are pictured on the set of Son of God.
Jesus wades waist-deep into the Sea of Galilee and boldly invites himself into the anchored fishing boat of an incredulous Simon Peter: “Peter, just give me an hour, and I will give you a whole new life.”
Jesus’ invitation summarizes the missionary aim of the new major motion picture, Son of God. According to husband-and-wife producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, the audience is offered the same opportunity as Simon Peter when they sit down to watch the film.
“Jesus, through the movie, can give you a whole new life,” said Burnett.
In the film, Jesus pledges to Simon Peter that, together, they will “change the world.” Likewise, Burnett intends Son of God, which opened in theaters Feb. 28, to make a global impact.
AN AMBITIOUS PROJECT
The fact that Downey is religious will surprise no one. For nine seasons, she starred on the hit CBS show Touched by An Angel. Although the series ended more than a decade ago, some fans still address Downey as “Monica,” the angelic protagonist. Raised Catholic, the Irish actress was educated by religious sisters. Her brother is a priest.
Burnett, on the other hand, is best known as the executive producer of Survivor the Machiavellian reality series that changed the TV landscape along with Celebrity Apprentice, The Voice and Shark Tank.
In 2013, the Hollywood power couple used their mainstream experience to create the 10-part miniseries The Bible. Burnett had lofty ambitions for the series. During an early publicity tour, he raised eyebrows by predicting that, in time, viewership of The Bible would exceed all of his other work.
If there were skeptics, they were silenced in March 2013, when The Bible debuted to 13.1 million viewers on the History channel. The series went on to garner some of the best cable ratings of 2013, as well as three Emmy nominations.
“It’s a Holy Spirit thing. We just kept feeling we’re supposed to be doing this,” said Burnett. “So, it’s not about us at all. It came out better than we ever thought we were capable of making it.”
Since Jesus was featured prominently in five of the 10 episodes, there were enough additional scenes to merit re-editing the series into a two-hour feature film focused on the Gospels. The theatrical release of Son of God coincides with the 10-year anniversary almost to the day of the last major film about Jesus, The Passion of the Christ.
While comparisons to Mel Gibson’s controversial classic are inevitable, the new movie differs from its precursor in significant ways. For one, the characters in The Passion of the Christ spoke only in Aramaic, Hebrew and Latin. By contrast, Son of God employs dialogue in modern English, sometimes adapting Scripture into more familiar phrasing.
Moreover, whereas The Passionn begins in the Garden of Gethsemane and focuses primarily on Jesus’ suffering, the narrative of Son of God extends from the Nativity through the Ascension.
Because of the movie’s scope, the filmmakers sought a lead capable of portraying Jesus in moments of joy, sorrow and glory.
“We always said we were looking for an actor who could portray the lion and the lamb,” said Downey. “We were looking for an actor who had a strong presence, and at the same time could bring gentleness, humility and kindness. We found that in Diogo Morgado.”
Burnett added, “He’s also Catholic. He grew up in Portugal, going to church his entire life.”
The Passion received both praise and criticism for depicting Jesus’ final hours with unflinching realism. Faced with the same challenge, Burnett and Downey sought to convey the reality of Christ’s sacrifice without overwhelming sensitive viewers. Practically speaking, they also wanted to ensure the movie was rated PG-13, since an R rating would significantly reduce the potential audience.
“We didn’t want to be gratuitous with the violent images,” Downey said. “So while you see the nail being placed on [Jesus’] hand, and the hammer being raised, we didn’t feel it was necessary that you watch the nail driving into his hand.”
A TEACHING TOOL
Some viewers may find that Son of God bears more in common with Hollywood blockbusters like Gladiator than with other religiously themed films. The soaring score by Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer, Lorne Balfe and Lisa Gerrard complements the stunning cinematography.
“It’s big, it’s epic, it’s sweeping,” said Downey. “And yet it’s deeply intimate and personal. The story is ultimately a love story.”
It is in the quiet moments a long embrace, a tender touch, a knowing gaze that the movie has its greatest impact. Downey herself plays Jesus’ mother and is featured in many of these scenes, like the Michelangelo-inspired Pietà tableau as Jesus is taken down from the Cross.
“As a young girl, [Mary] said ‘Yes’ to God,” said Downey, who felt intensely emotional about portraying the character. “She said ‘Yes’ again standing at the foot of the Cross. How could you bear that? But she stood there loving him, so that when he would look down, too, he would see her there.”
The prominence of the character of Mary in the film will resonate with Catholic audiences. In fact, Son of God has received notable endorsements from prominent Catholics.
“It’s a joy to watch this film bring alive the pages of the Gospel,” said Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C.
To prepare viewers for the film’s release, the Archdiocese of Washington has created a series of seven online catechetical videos linked to scenes in the movie. The videos complement the Son of God Reflection and Discussion Guide, written by Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield, associate general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The guide is one of many teaching tools available on the website seesonofgod.com.
Likewise, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles has said that the film is important “because it gives us the opportunity to realize God’s presence in our own lives, and that we are children of God. The film is extraordinary for my ministry.”
Burnett is particularly enthusiastic about the support from the Knights of Columbus, noting that many councils have pre-purchased theater tickets for parishes.
Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson is among those who have endorsed Son of God, saying, “This is a film that does not simply tell you about Christ, but puts you in the midst of his life, allowing you to see firsthand his public ministry, his love for humanity, and the death he suffered that we might have life eternal.”
One member of the Knights, actor Eduardo Verastegui, served as executive producer of Spanish-language version of Son of God. The star of the acclaimed film Bella, Verastegui worked with Burnett and Downey to find Spanish voice actors and to ensure that the translation of the script adhered to Scripture.
Downey is grateful that Catholic leaders can appreciate the vision behind the film. The project, she said, is “tied in with everything our new pope is speaking about this new evangelization and using all the new means we have to reach people with the message of Christ.”
The enthusiastic response to The Bible miniseries, along with the public’s embrace of Pope Francis, signals a renewed fascination with Christianity in popular culture. Downey and Burnett want to reach an audience whom they believe is hungry for deeper meaning, just as Jesus offered new life to a searching Simon Peter.
“We really believed that if the film was made well, the faithful will find it,” said Burnett. “And the faithful will use it to reach the people who have not known Jesus.”
For more information, visit sonofgodmovie.com.
KRIS DMYTRENKO is a communications coordinator for the Archdiocese of Toronto.