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What a pleasant surprise: a biblical film that doesn’t turn into a gory freak show or a speculation about the marital status of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Instead, “Son of God” offers a rational, straightforward, contemporary take on the life of Jesus, filmed in Morocco and starring a Portuguese actor, Diogo Morgado, who brings an infectiously revolutionary spirit to the central role. His recruiting of Peter (Darwin Shaw) is especially effective.

At the same time, Morgado suggests a questioning prophet who isn’t entirely sure of his powers. This is clearly a man who could predict Judas and Peter’s betrayals of him and wonder, from the cross, if his God had forsaken him.

The movie is a big-screen spinoff of last year’s History Channel miniseries, “The Bible,” in which Morgado also played Jesus. It rarely looks like a television byproduct, though there’s a rushed quality to the introduction of several characters, including Judas (Joe Wredden) and Pontius Pilate (a truly scary Greg Hicks). Will there be a longer version on DVD?

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The modern tone was intentional. The co-producer, Mark Burnett, recently told The New York Times that sending Pilate to the Holy Land would be like “sending someone to be the ambassador to Afghanistan right now.” Burnett calls the result “a political thriller,” and to a degree it succeeds on that level.

“Son of God” isn’t a great or necessary film, but it brings the gospels and the teachings of Jesus back to center stage. The miracles are there, and so is an unambiguous resurrection, so the movie is likely to satisfy believers who felt alienated by such crude blockbusters as “The Passion of the Christ” and “The Da Vinci Code.”

John Hartl:

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