NEW YORK – They say you can never 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 easy on the eyes that some are revisiting a 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 to sell movie tickets.
The producers of “Son of God” — Roma Downey (who also plays Jesus’ mother, Mary) and her husband, Mark Burnett — chose the strapping Diogo Morgado, a Portuguese actor who has dabbled in modeling, for Jesus in “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 explains she was seeking a subtle mix of qualities: “Someone with strength, presence, charisma, tenderness, kindness, compassion and natural humility — 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 was still no Jesus. Salvation came from an unexpected place. In Ouarzazate, Morocco, a member of an advance team remembered an actor who had 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 him 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 last weekend to Liam Neeson’s “Non-Stop,” beating out the blockbuster “Lego” movie.
To Morgado, it is 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 notes, was getting that balance between divine and human: “It’s a really tricky thing.”
That has always been a problem, said Jeffrey Mahan, professor at the Iliff school of theology in Denver. “Jesus films go back to the very beginning of cinema, and there’s always that tension between human and divine.”
Mahan notes that “this isn’t the first sexy Jesus on film.” When Jeffrey Hunter played the role in the 1961 “King of Kings,” he said, people dismissively dubbed it “I Was a Teenage Jesus,” a reference to Hunter’s youthful good looks (though he was in his 30s).
Some films, like the 1959 “Ben-Hur,” avoided problems by not showing Jesus’ face. Others, says 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.”
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, like 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 that is deemed one of the most controversial films of all time, both because of its bloody depiction of the Crucifixion — Roger Ebert called it the most violent film he had ever seen — and allegations of anti-Semitism.
Caviezel, Dafoe, Morgado — all give different interpretations, but they all look a certain way. None, for example, are dark-skinned, as some have speculated Jesus was. Others have noted that men of the time were significantly smaller than they are today.
“The fact is, we just don’t know how Jesus looked,” said Steven Kraftchick, a theology professor at Emory University.
Downey, asked about the issue, points out that her Jesus is a Latino, and that in itself is groundbreaking. (The film is also being released in Spanish.)
What troubles Mahan is that portrayals of a heartthrob Jesus ignore that “Jesus was an outsider. And this ‘pretty Jesus’ is an attempt to make him sort of a celebrity. That isn’t accurate according to the tone of the Gospels.”
Morgado is taking the long view. “When I was in Jerusalem, I saw a man and a 10-year-old kid praying,” he said. “And I looked at the kid and thought, ‘Wow, I will be his visual and spiritual reference.”
That is what producers are hoping.
“I think people who don’t know Jesus will fall in love,” Downey said. “And those who do know him will fall in love all over again.”