NEW YORK – They said you never can be too rich or too thin. Surely it goes without saying that you can’t be too good-looking, either, right? Especially in Hollywood.
But in the popular new film “Son of God,” Jesus is so, well, easy on the eyes that some are revisiting an age-old question that has vexed scholars for centuries:
Did Jesus really look like Brad Pitt, only slightly better?
OK, that exact question hasn’t vexed scholars for centuries. But those who study religion as portrayed in popular culture do note that depicting Jesus on the screen has always been a tricky business, one that balances weighty theological concerns – how divine to make the son of God, and how human? – with more earthly ones, like how best to sell movie tickets?
“Listen, films are big business,” said Steven Kraftchick, a professor at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. “They’re probably not going to cast Jonah Hill as Jesus.”
Not that Hill wouldn’t provide an interesting spin. But the producers of “Son of God,” Roma Downey (who also plays Jesus’ mother, Mary) and her husband, Mark Burnett, clearly were going for something different when they chose the strapping, 6-foot, 3-inch Diogo Morgado, a Portuguese actor who’s dabbled in modeling, for “The Bible,” their History Channel miniseries. (“Son of God” is culled from footage shot for the series).
Downey won’t deny her Jesus is good-looking, but explained she was seeking a subtle mix of qualities.
“Someone with strength, presence, charisma, tenderness, kindness, compassion and natural humility,” Downey said. “Someone who could be both a lion and a lamb.”
Casting came down to the wire. A few weeks before shooting was to begin in Morocco, there still was no Jesus. Downey fired off an email to church and business contacts with the urgent header: “Looking for Jesus.”
Salvation came from an unexpected place. In Ouarzazate, Morocco, a member of an advance team remembered an actor who’d been there more than a year earlier on a different project. He searched through hotel registries and found the name.
Not surprisingly, Morgado’s looks have been a big part of the conversation ever since.
“We not only found Jesus, we found ‘hot Jesus,’” Oprah Winfrey told Morgado in a TV interview, referring to a Twitter hashtag about the actor.
“A hunkier Jesus than necessary,” Variety noted in its review of the movie. The Hollywood Reporter called it “Jesus as pretty boy,” and noted a resemblance between Morgado and the young Marlon Brando.
But box office is booming. “Son of God” came in a close second the weekend of Feb. 28-March 2 to Liam Neeson’s “Non-Stop,” beating out the blockbuster “Lego” movie.
To Morgado, it’s all good.
“Long after I’m gone, this is going to be my legacy,” he said in a telephone interview. “So why should I worry about people calling me ‘hot Jesus’? I’m really proud of this movie.”
His key acting challenge, Morgado said, was getting that balance between divine and human: “It’s a really tricky thing.”
That’s always been a problem, said Jeffrey Mahan, professor at the Iliff School of Theology, a Methodist seminary in Denver.
“Jesus films go back to the very beginning of cinema,” he said, “and there’s always that tension between human and divine. ... This isn’t the first sexy Jesus on film.”
When Jeffrey Hunter played the role in the 1961 “King of Kings,” Mahan said, people dismissively dubbed it “I Was a Teenage Jesus,” a reference to Hunter’s youthful good looks. (The actor was 34 when the film was released.)
Some films, such as the 1959 “Ben-Hur,” avoided issues by not showing Jesus’ face. Others, said Adele Reinhartz, author of “Jesus in Hollywood” and professor at the University of Ottawa, show a sanitized figure “that could have walked right out of a Renaissance painting.” But they were always fairly good-looking.
“These are marketing decisions,” she said.
The deeper problem with portraying Jesus, Reinhartz said, is that “to make a compelling movie character, you need flaws. And that doesn’t fit into most conceptions of Jesus.”
One exception was Martin Scorsese’s 1988 “The Last Temptation of Christ,” starring Willem Dafoe as a Jesus conflicted about his identity and experiencing earthly temptations such as lust. That didn’t please everyone; a Christian fundamentalist group hurled Molotov cocktails at a Paris theater where it played.
Then there was Mel Gibson’s 2004 “The Passion of the Christ,” starring Jim Caviezel, an enormous hit which is deemed one of the most controversial films of all time because of its bloody depiction of the Crucifixion – Roger Ebert called it the most violent film he’d ever seen – and allegations of anti-Semitism.
Caviezel, Dafoe, Morgado each different interpretations, but they all looked a certain way. None, for example, are dark-skinned, as some have speculated Jesus was. Others have said that men of the time were significantly smaller than they are today.
“The fact is we just don’t know how Jesus looked,” Kraftchick said. “How big was he? Did he have a speech defect?”
Downey, asked about the issue, pointed out that her Jesus is a Latino, and that in itself is groundbreaking. (The film also is being released in Spanish.)