"Son of God," the first major cinematic retelling of the story of Jesus in more than a decade, confounded Hollywood elites, mainstream critics, and industry experts Sunday with a staggering $26.5 million box office take.
The Fox release, a brainchild of reality TV producer Mark Burnett and his wife, actress Roma Downey, nearly toppled reigning box office heavyweight Liam Neeson, coming in a close second to his adventure film "Non-Stop." That film was No. 1 with a $30 million weekend box office.
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“Son of God” brings to the big screen an epic from the team that created “The Bible” for cable TV’s History Channel. Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado plays Jesus as the film covers his birth, teachings, crucifixion, and resurrection.
It marks the first motion picture about Jesus’ life since “The Passion of the Christ” 10 years ago, according to the film’s website. That movie, from director Mel Gibson, generated $612 million in worldwide ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo.
BoxOffice.com had predicted $17.5 million in weekend sales for "Son of God." The film's success also revealed the huge divide between the Christian fan base and mainstream movie critics. The film attracted favorable ratings of 22 percent from critics at Rottentomatoes.com, while 83 percent of fans like it.
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"Christian movies are strong," Ted Baehr, a film critic and publisher of Movieguide, told Newsmax. He that the average Christian film earns about $100 million while a non-Christian movie averages about $7 million. "Hollywood, for many years now, has been shown that movies with Christian faith and values do better at the box office."
Filmed in Morocco and directed by Christopher Spencer, "Son of God" launches from the New Testament Gospel of John, telling Jesus' story through key moments in his life and crucifixion and continuing through his resurrection.
Downey stars as Mary, the mother of Jesus, but the cast features relatively unknown actors, including Morgado in the title role.
"This really is a love story — the greatest love story ever told," Downey said as she took to morning television to promote the film.
Morgado, in an appearance on "Kathie Lee & Hoda," described the storyline as "all about love and passion and optimism. It is a political thriller as well. The thing about this movie that I really enjoy is that it is an epic, but it's also a really personal and up-close story."
But playing Christianity's Savior, he added, was daunting.
"I was in a panic, because I knew the responsibility," Morgado said. "I went to Jerusalem. I felt the importance of the story."
Writing on the Dove Foundation's website, Christian Cinema reviewer Edwin L. Carpenter said the film will take viewers "on a powerful, compelling, and in the end, spiritual journey.
"I found myself spiritually stirred as I watched this movie," Carpenter wrote in his review. "The brutality of the Crucifixion reminded me of what Christ willingly endured to redeem the lost. It renewed me."
Churches around the country are renting theaters to make sure the movie is available for their faithful. Noted Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., has rented eight theaters in Orange County for a screening.
The film, which has a newly released iTunes soundtrack, has received endorsements from well-known ministers, including Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington, D.C., Bishop T.D. Jakes in Dallas, and popular television evangelist Joel Osteen.
The film also got a crucial thumbs up from Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman, who told Newsmax that the film was a necessary corrective to the anti-Semitism in Gibson's "Passion.".
"It's almost a disservice to 'Son of God' to compare the two," Foxman told Newsmax last week.
"Gibson bloodied the Jews by portraying them as such villains," said Foxman, who was among the Jewish leaders who a decade ago spoke out bitterly against Gibson's brutal recounting of Christ's crucifixion, saying its depiction of sadistic Pharisees and stereotypical characters fanned the flames of hatred against Jews.
But he has no problem with "Son of God."
"The story of the crucifixion and the way it has been used through the centuries has never been good for the Jews," he said.
"Having said that, 'Son of God' is the most sensitive, caring depiction of the story of Jesus that I have ever seen. The producers have done everything possible to put the events into historical, political and psychological context."
Producer Burnett told Newsmax recently that he is hopeful about the movie's power to evangelize to a broad audience.
"We believe in the decades to come, people in remote places will find Jesus through watching this movie on their iPhones," Burnett told Newsmax in an exclusive interview.
"People in developing countries are getting telephones before they're getting televisions. And they can watch this, in the decades to come, on their phone."
Burnett's television ventures, including "Survivor," "The Apprentice," "Shark Tank," and "The Voice," have enjoyed great success. He said some people discouraged him from bringing a Bible story to the masses. But he was buoyed by the longevity of "The Bible" miniseries, which is still running strong in the international market a year after it premiered in the United States.
Conrad Ostwalt, a professor who studies religion and the secularization of popular culture as it pertains to film, literature, music, and art, said "Son of God" has great potential for success in a society that has become more secularized than ever over the past few decades.
"We don't see in the news or in our political leaders an overt religiosity that we may have seen a half a century ago. Maybe the popularization of religious films signals a new outlet for meeting spiritual and religious needs of society," said Ostwalt, department chairperson of american religious traditions, religion and culture in at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.
Analysts said the movie's showing at the box office could encourage Hollywood to make more such films.
“If the expectation is that Hollywood should make more movies like this, then the audiences who want these movies have to vote with their dollars," Paul Dergarabedian
, senior media analyst for box-office tracker Rentrak, told The Washington Post. "It’s only then that Hollywood will wake up and see this as a viable genre that people will want to see."
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