When matinee idol Jeffrey Hunter starred in the 1961 version of “King of Kings,” snarkier critics called it “I Was a Teenage Jesus.” When “The Last Temptation of Christ” played Paris in 1988, with Willem Dafoe as a conflicted Messiah, the theater was firebombed. In both “The Robe” (1953) and “Ben-Hur” (1959), Jesus was a character, but his face was never seen – out of respect, perhaps, but maybe out of caution, too.
Filming the Passion is fraught with peril. So is the casting of a personage whom millions of Christians consider divine. There’s little question that when “Son of God” goes into wide release on Feb. 28, bringing Jesus back to mainstream theaters for the first time in a decade, it will invite a certain level of scrutiny.
Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Brad Pitt, plays the title role. His looks will surely tax the patience of historians who say that Jesus, as a Jew of first-century Palestine, was probably more dark skinned than the fair-faced Morgado, who early on inspired the Twitter hashtag #hotjesus.
“It’s a compliment, obviously,” Morgado said, “but I don’t want that to take away from what we tried to achieve. The best story is the story that gets to the most people. If the message of Jesus was love, hope and compassion, and I can bring that to more people by being a more appealing Jesus, I am happy with that.”
The casting was a no-brainer for the film’s main producers, Mark Burnett, creator of “Survivor” and “The Voice,” among other reality shows, and his wife, actress Roma Downey (“Touched by an Angel”). Together, they made “The Bible,” the hugely successful 2013 History channel miniseries that begot “Son of God” (and a coming television sequel on NBC, “A.D.”).
The casting of Jesus has gone every which way since a man named Frank Russell appeared in “The Passion Play of Oberammergau” for the Edison Manufacturing Co. in 1898. More famous instances include Max von Sydow’s solemn turn in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965); the 52-year-old H.B. Warner in Cecil B. DeMille’s silent “The King of Kings” (1927); the very blue-eyed Robert Powell’s intense performance in Franco Zeffirelli’s popular TV production “Jesus of Nazareth” (1977); and, of course, Jim Caviezel’s work in Mel Gibson’s 2004 “The Passion of the Christ,” that most controversial of Jesus movies.
“There was really no major, problematic reaction to Jim Caviezel’s casting and portrayal,” said Bob Berney, who as president of Newmarket Films handled the distribution of Gibson’s movie, which became embroiled in controversy over accusations of anti-Semitism. “The audience and critics were way more focused on the director.” But he added that both “The Passion” and “Son of God” are theatrical films aimed at wide audiences, and those audiences “expects actors who are believable, but who also have a ‘movie star’ look in the tradition that goes back to early Hollywood Bible epics.”
Morgado’s face will probably contribute to the fortunes of “Son of God.” So might its efforts to solicit feedback throughout production from an ecumenical group of advisers ranging from two Catholic archbishops (Donald Wuerl in Washington and José Gómez in Los Angeles) to evangelical pastor Rick Warren and Abraham H. Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League. One goal was to avoid the kind of controversy that surrounded “The Passion of the Christ.” In “Son of God,” the point is emphasized that Caiaphas (Adrian Schiller) and the rest of the Sanhedrin, or Jewish council of Jerusalem, were deathly afraid of the Roman reaction to Jesus’ preaching, which was seen as revolutionary.
“We try to show the turmoil of the time,” Burnett said, “and how frightened they were in the Sanhedrin about the Romans, who could have shut down the temple and killed thousands of people.”
Morgado said it was his intention to make Jesus a more approachable, human character than has been portrayed in some dramatizations, and balance Jesus’ divinity and his doubts. “He is a man,” Morgado said, “and it’s OK to doubt. Faith is based on doubt.”