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Jesus returns to big screen in over 10 years

The Hollywood husband-and-wife team that made "The Bible" mini-series a smash hit is hoping to parlay that success onto the big screen with their new biblical movie, "Son of God."

Actress Roma Downey, best known for her leading role on the TV series "Touched by an Angel," and her husband, reality TV show producer Mark Burnett of "Survivor," "Shark Tank" and "The Voice" fame, are the creative team behind "Son of God," which opens nationwide on Feb. 28.

"Jesus hasn't been on the big screen for 10 years since 'The Passion of the Christ,'" Downey said.

The couple is hoping "Son of God" will strike a chord with a new generation of moviegoers.

"We're aware that many people learn through visual storytelling," Downey said. "And for so many people, people who don't go to church, people who maybe have never read the Bible, this movie, 'Son of God,' will be the first time that they hear and see the story of Jesus come to life."

In the movie, Downey plays what is really the female lead the Virgin Mary.

"It was profoundly moving to step into the role, because we know Mary was the mother of the son of God, but she was also the mother of a son," she said. "She knew that he was born to be extraordinary."

Last year, Burnett and Downey produced "The Bible" mini-series for the History Channel. The Sunday school epic was wildly successful, becoming the number one drama series of 2013 with more than 100 million viewers more than "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men" or "The Walking Dead."

"Our finale beat both the 'Game of Thrones' premiere and 'The Walking Dead' finale," Burnett said.

"Son of God" is the first of several old-fashioned Bible movies due out this year. There's also "Noah," starring Russell Crowe; "Exodus," with Christian Bale in the role of Moses; and "Mary, Mother of Christ." All have 2014 release dates.

Ever since Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea as Moses in the 1956 epic "The Ten Commandments," Hollywood has had a thirst for more. In today's dollars (adjusted for inflation) "The Ten Commandments" and "Ben Hur," Heston's other Bible epic, are counted among the most successful Hollywood movies ever made.

"I grew up in Ireland and I was raised on all those old Bible movies," Downey said. "We would sit there on rainy Sunday afternoons on the couch. ... I couldn't consider thinking about Moses and not, in some way, remember Charlton Heston."

The Gospel stories too have a precedent on the big screen, most notably in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." It may be the only movie ever made in Aramaic and it has grossed more than $600 million worldwide. Pope John Paul II, after a Vatican screening, reportedly said, "It is as it was," and gave the movie his blessing.

Despite its huge success, "The Passion" drew protests from the Jewish community over allegations of anti-Semitism. Burnett said he and Downey took great pains to make sure "Son of God" was sensitive to Jewish concerns.

"We had a massive responsibility in making this movie, and we enlisted the help of over 40 academics and church leaders across all faiths, including rabbis, Catholic leaders, Protestant leaders, to make sure that we were faithful to the text and considerate and respectful across faith," he said.

Even before the critics have weighed in, "Son of God" has a built-in audience. Just as Mel Gibson made the rounds at mega-churches a decade ago to market "The Passion of the Christ," Burnett and Downey have been spreading the word about "Son of God." They have enlisted support from archbishops and the pastors of mega-churches, including televangelist Joel Osteen, to make their movie a teaching tool.

Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., reportedly plans to fill up the local megaplex on opening night with parishioners.

"If you didn't know Jesus and you came to this movie for the first time, I think you would get a beautiful understanding of what he came to do, of how he loved," Downey said. "We've tried to tell the movie as a thriller to create the tension and the drama to make it compelling, to keep you interested."