Of course, there are miracles.
In Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth places his hands on a lame man, and the man rises and walks again.
The preacher with the beard and the beatific smile goes fishing with Peter, who complains that the waters are without fish. Then Peter draws in his nets, teeming with flopping, finned creatures - enough to feed thousands of awestruck followers.
The filmmakers behind Son of God - condensed and reconfigured from last year's 10-hour History Channel mini-series The Bible - pull off a similar transformation, though one that may leave audiences more dumbstruck than in awe: They have turned the Christ saga into cheese. As in cheesy.
With its Sunday-school narration and its periodic flyovers of a computer-rendered Jerusalem, and with a cast that can best be described as handsome, Son of God reduces the civilization-shaping events in the life and times of Jesus into a highlight reel. Born in a manger, check. The Sermon on the Mount, check. The cleansing of the temples, check.
For all its faults, Son of God, directed by Christopher Spencer, moves like a veritable express train for a time, brisk and businesslike. It isn't until the arrest and trial of Jesus by the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate that Son of God slows calamitously, placing greater stress on the actors to deliver - not just their lines, but the roiling emotions behind them. Where's Mel Gibson when you need him? (For all its controversy and graphic brutality, The Passion of the Christ had, well, passion - and a point of view.)
In Son of God the burden rests foremost on Diogo Morgado, a Portuguese model-turned-screen player who has a bit of the young Marlon Brando about his forehead, a bit of Brad Pitt about his grin, and absolutely no bit of an idea about how to pull off this biblical speechifying. It's a good bet that the real Jesus, whether one believes him to be a man, a manifestation of God, or both, did not lack in charisma.
To watch Morgado entreat the costumed masses with talk of love and compassion is to witness a kind of anti-charisma, a bland earnestness. The supporting cast is similarly hobbled (by the script, by the direction, by their own limitations): Greg Hicks as Pontius; (coproducer) Roma Downey as the Virgin Mary; Amber Rose Revah as Mary Magdalene; Adrian Schiller as Caiaphas, the leader of the council of Jews; Darwin Shaw as Peter; Joe Wredden as Judas.
Son of God is part of a long tradition of Hollywoodizations of the Christ tale. But it is not The Greatest Story Ever Told, merely the latest.
Son of God ** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Christopher Spencer. With Diogo Morgado, Darwin Shaw, Amber Rose Revah, Roma Downey, and Joe Wredden. Distributed by 20th Century Fox.
Running time: 2 hours, 18 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters