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One of the true downfalls of cinema is that one can never truly receive the entirety of the story. Even with brilliant writing, phenomenal acting, life-like effects, and a moving score, film inherently presents a “fourth wall,” or the restriction to interact from . Films “based on a true story” are often times just that: based on the real events that unfold in front of these portrayed people. In this light, it is impossible to fully cultivate the story of someone’s life, garnished with their thoughts and their emotions, their impetuses and struggles, the mundane and the excitement that life presents each of us every day. The film American Sniper, while wonderfully acted and suspenseful to a fault, could never fully capture the sheer pressure of the real-life marksman Chris Kyle. How, then, can a film “based on the true story” of Jesus Christ, the centerfold of an entire religious following, be relegated to the film’s 138-minute run time? In truth, it cannot, but the message of the man’s life can be carried on thematically. Both the Bible and the film Son of God can be summed up on the premise that Jesus, the all-powerful son of God the creator, was a humble man. The theme of modesty is applaudable, but critics have lambasted the film for not upholding the same modest demeanor that the Bible depicts. To show just where these critics stand, a side-by-side comparison of the film’s source material and the film itself will be cross-analyzed to fully grasp the nature and hazards of adaptation, and why the humble Lamb of God may lose that glimmer on the big screen.
The first scene to be analyzed should be the first miracle Jesus displays to Peter, the fisherman. The context is Jesus of Nazareth, a grown man, stumbles upon a struggling fisherman who has been at the seas day and night with barely a fish to show for it. Jesus, as per the Scriptures, climbs aboard his vessel, and tells him to throw his nets “the right side of the boat and you will find some” (John 21:6, NIV.) Peter obliges and picks up an unbelievable haul due to Jesus’ ability to manipulate life and perform miracles. While the rest of the passage is Peter confessing that the man standing before him is truly the Lord, the film offers a different perspective. Peter and Jesus cast out the nets, haul in an unbelievable amount of fish, and Jesus asks Peter to join him. In classically-overused trope fashion, Peter asks, “to do what?” to which Jesus responds, looking to the distant horizon, “to change the world.” Jesus (played by Diogo Morgado) does not exemplify modesty as the text does. Even though he seems like a humble soul in the film, there is something very glaring about his use of miracles that contrasts with his behaviour in the Bible. He is determined to show the people that he is the son of God, but he does not mean to boast. His intentions are good, and in the text he does not brag but tells Peter to bring the fish to later feed his disciples. The film, however, offers a hammy and stereotypical “we’re going to change the world” moment that does nothing but add this coy pride that is very uncharacteristic of Jesus as he appears in the text. Jesus’ intentions are to change the world, but he establishes this by doing philanthropic deeds for the people and teaching about God and Heaven. In the film, he basically performs magic tricks and implores the crowd that they should follow him. In the Bible, people follow Jesus because they feel he is truly connected with God, while in the film, they are charmed by his magic tricks and sophism, so they follow him through the desert. This state of humbleness is drastically different from the text, and a glaring point that critics rightfully despise in the film.
Something more despicable in the film is the portrayal of Jesus. Of course, not many know exactly what Jesus looked like. The time of Jesus is estimated to be about 1 CE to 25 CE, which certainly does not help historians. It is comparable to saying that one’s birthday occurs “the first year they were born.” At any rate, the era Jesus was a part of did not value art or paintings in Jerusalem, unlike the Roman empire which relished art and aesthetics. The the tyranny of the empire troubled the people, and as such thought only of the practical things, such as harvesting enough food to survive their future generations and themselves. No one truly sat Jesus down and painted his portrait. Many historians believe that, due to the area of the world Jesus lived and travelled in, collated with some choice words from his followers, Jesus was quite unlike his depiction in most art. His geographical location suggests that he would be a dark-skinned man with black features. The Bible confirms this several time in the New Testament, speaking that, “his feet were like burnished bronze…” (Revelations 1:15, ESV) or that his skin was reminiscent of “topaz” (Daniel 10:6, ESV.) Though it is not to be blamed on the director for choosing a lighter-skinned actor to play Jesus (after all, his divine features are quite blanched in most historic and modern artworks), but it is the lack of modesty in appearance that causes critics to slam this film. The Bible often depicts that Jesus wore very modest clothing, and the scriptures state that, “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” (Peter 3:2-4, NIV) Diogo Morgado looks like a L’Oreal model, dressed in bright robes and flattering sandals. His clothes are quite clean, which would require a lot of attention to detail. No matter how charismatic, generous, compassionate and approachable he seemed, he had the Fabio Richardson hair, milk-white teeth, and an aura of cleanliness in a place of pestilence and sand. Some say that the divine powers that be prevented his beauty from being marred, but for a person who supports that the clothes don’t make the man, he certainly does not act like it in the film.
Aside from not acting particularly modestly nor dressing simply, the film itself was very lavished as opposed to being humble. In film, the atmosphere created by a camera angle, a score, and the lighting can dramatically change the mood or tone of the scene. The film mostly relies on the well-known stories of Jesus Christ as he lived, died, and rose again. Again, as stated in the introduction, it’s no small task to take a person’s life and emotions and turn it into a viewable biopic. However, the issue with speeding things up for the sake of pacing is that there must occur some sort of paraphrasing. Jesus and the characters in the film do not go line-by-line from the Bible. Scenes involving the miracles do not show the doubters or the onlookers that deny what they have seen, but rather a wave of awestruck people who accept that what they’ve seen is God in true human form. The Bible depicts that not everyone is a believer, and that Jesus’ “heresy” cooks up a lot of trouble for him later on when the Romans catch up with him. The film, however, has these excited children that run up to him like a celebrity and he fascinates the whole town. Jesus’ affability is something he earns from his people later on, but the film instantly gratifies him with popularity and makes the Pharasees and the Romans his sole enemies.
The issues presented in Son of God are a drastic and almost indoctrinating look at Jesus Christ. The critics are not the only ones shooing away the film, as many Christians themselves turned away the film for being “unrealistic” and “unconvincing.” Jesus’ generosity and humbleness as presented in the Bible is far from translated here, and the directors inadvertently paint a caricature of Jesus. This film is truly more of a cautionary tale about adaptation, and how an effort to stay true to the source material and a bit more time on the research can earn more credibility for your project.
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