Christians, I’m talking to you. And you deserve better than this.
I’m going to assume that you’re the audience who’ll pay for tickets to this movie, a multi-part miniseries chopped down to feature length (with a little new footage), one that already aired on basic cable last year and is readily available on DVD. And I get why church groups have bought out entire theaters for its opening weekend. It’s about representation. Specialty audiences, no matter who they are, are hungry to see their lives, values and concerns depicted on the big screen, even if it means spending money and traveling to see something they could just have easily stayed at home to watch.
But shouldn’t Christian filmmaking, if it’s going to be a regular part of the culture and routinely show up at the multiplex as something more than a novelty event like this, do more than pander and reach for the squarely unimaginative middle? Shouldn’t a contemporary retelling of the life of Christ, one that follows in the footsteps of movies like The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Gospel Road (my personal favorite, thanks to on-camera chaperone Johnny Cash), strive for the kind of artistic quality worthy of its mission? And shouldn’t the high drama inherent in this particular narrative create sparks no matter how familiar the final act?
Maybe you just answered “no.” If that’s the case then go have a good time at the movies. But if not, you’ll be annoyed to learn that this gospel road is the old, old story told with good-enough production values and an appropriately sand-brown look, yet afflicted by a lifeless quality that will induce fidgeting during its two hour and twenty minute running time. Everything is competent here, but nothing is special. And saddest of all, Diogo Morgado, the Portuguese actor in the lead (yes, another Euro-Jesus) has been directed to a performance that resembles little more than a kind of strange, smug hippie, the blissed-out organic market employee talking down to you about hemp milk. This is a Son of God already posing for his resurrection close-up.
Who loses when the low mark of excellence is a kind of bland lack of ineptitude? The audience praying for something more, for starters. They’ll keep on buying tickets, hoping for something that feels even a little less embarrassing than a film starring Kirk Cameron, and if all signs keep pointing in the direction they have been, that audience will keep starving. If non-arthouse, Christian-themed films expect to do more than make their target demographic feel good about itself, if they ever want to reach out past the back pews and into the world, they’d be wise to follow the lead of something like 1997’s The Apostle, Robert Duvall’s beautiful, melancholy film about a preacher struggling with his own personal demons. It’s every bit as gritty and real and true as this repurposed TV movie thinks it is.