When Roma Downey and her husband, Mark Burnett, decided to make a movie about the life of Jesus, the couple’s teenagers had some advice.
“They said, ‘Don’t make it lame. Make it cool,’ ” Downey said. So when she and Burnett brought back early footage from the filming, they showed it to the movie-savvy critics at home.
“When we sat them down to watch it, they were totally engaged,” Downey said. The kids even asked if they could take the clip to show people at school. “That was the moment we looked at each other and thought: Wow, we have something very special here.”
When “Son of God” opened in theaters this week, it received a warm welcome from a Christian audience. Prominent church leaders – including Joel and Victoria Osteen of Houston’s Lakewood Church – have endorsed the movie, urging church members to see it and to bring their friends. Some churches are buying out theaters to bring in viewers and to make the movie a financial success its opening weekend.
“We’ve really felt the groundswell of support growing,” Downey said earlier this month. It’s connecting with an audience that, Downey believes, is hungry to see the story of Jesus presented well.
Downey, who starred in the CBS series “Touched by an Angel” (1994-2003), said she and Burnett - the creator of hit shows such as “Survivor” and “The Voice” – wanted to present the story of Jesus in a way that would connect with contemporary moviegoers who expect intensity, a fast pace and top-notch special effects.
To make “Son of God,” Downey and Burnett mostly used newly edited footage from their TV miniseries “The Bible,” which drew more than 11 million viewers a night when it aired over five nights last year on the History Channel. The result, a 2½-hour feature film, is a sweeping drama with epic landscapes, an attractive young cast and high-tech CGI effects. “And yet, at the same time,” Downey said, “it’s this deeply intimate personal love story.”
Narrated by the disciple John, “Son of God” follows Jesus through key moments of his life from the moment he begins to collect disciples. Before long, he’s getting mobbed by crowds of people who have heard he’s the son of God; everywhere he goes, they draw close to touch him or ask for healing.
Anyone who’s ever been to Sunday School will recognize the moments: Jesus brings Lazarus, four days dead, back to life. He tells a paralyzed man to get up and walk – and the man does. When a hungry crowd of thousands gathers to see him, he feeds them all with just a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread.
It’s this depiction of Jesus – gentle and humble, but wildly charismatic and able to produce miracles – that will make viewers fall in love with him, Downey said.
“I think there’s such an opportunity, particularly for the young generation, to get to know him through visual storytelling,” she said. “It’s clear that many people learn more from seeing than from reading.”
And it was time to offer a fresh version of Jesus on screen, she said. Mel Gibson’s R-rated 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ” focused on his death, not the story of his life. And “The Greatest Story Ever Told” – the last movie to depict the full life of Jesus – was released in 1965, nearly 50 years ago.
“Son of God,” Downey said, is “presented almost like a political thriller” – a drama that pits Roman oppressors against Jesus and his disciples, with the Temple authorities caught in the middle, fearful for their own lives and careers. The ticking clock that moves the action is the fact that Passover’s approaching and Jews are converging on Jerusalem for the holiday. The fear that Jesus and his followers will stir up trouble during Passover is what ultimately leads to a sham of a trial and quick death sentence, followed by a public and excruciating crucifixion.
In its last hour, “Son of God” takes a brutal turn. Jesus is beaten and tortured; he bleeds and suffers; he writhes in agony and dies.
“Crucifixion was a horrible and brutal way to die; I don’t think there was any way to present that and not have it be awful,” Downey said. “But what we tried to do was not make any of our shots gratuitous.”
The producers, she said, “worked very hard to get a PG-13 rating because we wanted to encourage people to come with their families.” That, she hopes, will make the film “an entry point into a larger conversation about faith and God and Jesus.”