Just when massive scrutiny is being fixed on a certain upcoming high-profile film about the final hours of Jesus Christ’s life and whether or not it may be anti-Semitic, a smaller, hitherto unheralded picture drawn directly from the fourth and most singular gospel has arrived that will arrest the attention of anyone interested in interpretations of scripture. Produced by Visual Bible International, a Toronto-based “faith-based media company,” self-distributed “The Gospel According to John” will open in the U.S. on Sept. 26, mainly along the Bible belt, and enthusiastic word-of-mouth could send it further afield theatrically before homevid release takes it to the core constituency that has supported the company’s previous verbatim visualizations of the Gospel of Matthew and Acts.
The film makes a virtue of its self-imposed restriction of relating the familiar story word-for-word from the book in question. Modestly budgeted production is dramatically powerful, surprising in its strong narrative differences from previous cinematic tellings of “the greatest story” and bold in the extent to which it presents Jesus as a confrontational and threatening figure in the Judean context of the time.
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The Gospel of John stands quite apart from those of Mark, Matthew and Luke in numerous ways. Evidently written in the last part of the first century, well after the others and two generations after Jesus’ death, it features unusually poetic language, is marked by long speeches and arguments between Jesus and other Jewish figures, emphatically posits Jesus as the Messiah and is the product of a very specific moment when Christianity had firmly established itself as a religion separate from, and competitive with, Judaism.
For the latter reason, the Gospel of John more directly points the finger of blame for Jesus’ crucifixion at the Jews, or, as the here-employed Good News Bible translates the Greek word Ioudaioi, “the Jewish authorities.”
But while Caiaphas and other temple leaders are clearly shown lobbying with Pilate to execute Jesus and stirring up the mob to aid their cause, the film makes clearer than has any previous version of the story how threatening Jesus was to the Jewish establishment; time and again, Jesus returns to Jerusalem to berate and ridicule the temple elders, to the point where his message truly does seem radical.
Film’s press materials make much of the fact that several of the project’s backers are Jewish — most notably producer Garth Drabinsky — as well as the point that a distinguished advisory board of scholars representing several faiths, including Judaism and Catholicism, weighed every aspect of the picture’s representation of the gospel.
Fortunately, the result is not a watered down compromise version designed to offend no one; there is not a hint of Sunday School blandness to it. Rather, the key to the film’s strength is its bracingly undiluted feel, a quality that stems from its taking a firm position — in this case, unwavering fidelity to the chosen text — and running with it.
Viewers familiar with the basic tale, and perhaps especially those whose acquaintance with it stems from the last major round of Jesus films some 40 years ago, which included “King of Kings,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” will no doubt wonder if they’re missing something here: Such touchstones as the Nativity, Herod, the death of John the Baptist, the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ journey into the wilderness are entirely absent. The Last Supper becomes an occasion for Jesus to wash all the disciples’ feet, and Jesus’ torture, struggle up Golgotha carrying the cross and even the crucifixion itself are handled with almost cursory dispatch.
But in these matters, as elsewhere, the film accurately represents its source material, which, after the soaring opening, takes up the adult Jesus as he arrives to be baptized by John the Baptist. So dominated by voice-over narration is the early-going that the fear arises of a Classics Illustrated rendition, but the cascade of words shortly becomes comfortably integrated with the dialogue, in no small measure due to the exceedingly beautiful reading of the text by Christopher Plummer.
Nor does it take long for the film to demonstrate that the conviction of the talent, particularly vet director Philip Saville and the unknown leading actor Henry Ian Cusick, will be equal to the task at hand.
Largely eschewing the pictorialism normally associated with the Biblical genre, Saville gets in tight with his actors and, courtesy of lenser Miroslaw Baszak, vigorously follows Jesus on his rounds.
Intent here was not to create a visual pageant or spectacle, but to convey the meaning of the Word, and this has been accomplished with rigor and discipline. Those who have experienced Saville’s decidedly mixed bag of films over a long career — “Stop the World — I Want to Get Off,” “Oedipus the King,” “Secrets” and “Metroland,” among others — won’t be blamed for not suspecting he had it in him.
No expectations one way or the other accompany Cusick, a British theater actor who is not physically dominant but expresses an energy, eloquence and force of personality that captivate and thoroughly convince in creating a figure others willingly follow. Cusick’s Jesus is restless, driven, borderline arrogant, conscious of his limited time and self-aware like no one else on Earth before or since.
More than other accounts, John makes a close study of Jesus’ extensive travels. On his first visit to Jerusalem, Jesus violently overturns the moneychangers’ tables and yells out, “Stop making my Father’s home a marketplace.” In his subsequent encounters with the Pharisees, Jesus raises the ante each time, alarming them with his perceived blasphemies and departures from strict Mosaic behavior to the point where it’s easy to see why he was considered an undesirable rabble-rouser by the establishment. Overall, pic admirably delineates the factionalism among Jews under the Roman rule of the period.
At the same time, an odd show-offy undercurrent accompanies the detailed presentations of the miracles. Changing water into wine, walking on water, restoring sight to a blind man, raising Lazarus from the dead — these and similarly impressive displays are shown as crucial to building Jesus’ reputation among the people and to making his case for divinity. He repeatedly feels obliged to tell his listeners, “I am telling you the truth,” but it’s as if he realizes that, should he want to ensure people take him for more than an everyday preacher, he has to perform extravagant stunts from time to time.
The Jesus most commonly imagined in drama and legend — the health-restoring, inspirational and selfless itinerant rabbi who met a painful end, then presented his resurrected body to his disciples on his journey home to his Father — is entirely present. But so is a complexity that allows for multiple sides of this most influential and conjectured-about figure: the provocateur, the showman, the pre-ordained victim, the self-proclaimed deity. And all this within the restraining confines of the most extreme and contentious of the gospels.
Among the supporting players, Stephen Russell stands out as a world-weary Pilate with no inclination to punish the alleged King of the Jews.
With Spanish locations ably standing in for the Holy Land, the production is enhanced by its direct, unadorned look. Helping the three-hour running time go down smoothly is Jeff Danna’s supple and dramatically supportive score, in which traditional orchestral arrangements are supplemented by sounds emanating from musical instruments traceable to Biblical times.