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Grade: D+Gospel of John, The (2003)

Director: Philip Saville

Stars: Christopher Plummer, Henry Ian Cusick

Release Company: ThinkFilm

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Official Site

Saville: The Gospel of John


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With Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ looming around the corner, Christians seeking a less bloody Catholic version can opt for a more "proper" Calvinistic Christ that emphasizes "the Word" above all things. The Gospel of John ambitiously takes its interpretation of Jesus' "best loved disciple" literally—using the American Bible Society's Good News Bible to craft a word for word rendition of John's gospel without references to the other gospels. Nary a word is left out—if not spoken as dialogue, veteran Canadian actor Christopher Plummer narrates the text continuously. In one sense this makes the script a strength for Christians looking for a "true" interpretation, yet artistically this slavish devotion to John's text weakens its impact for viewers seeking new dramatic flair.

Recording his narrative two generations after Christ's crucifixion, John never intended his gospel as a screenplay, and this film makes it obvious why most previous cinematic interpretations have based the bulk of their content on the gospels of Mathew and Luke. Although these gospels occasionally conflict in details, they provide enough material to require interpretation and offer chances for more rounded characterization. Sticking strictly with John's narrative, the story episodically begins with John the Baptist and Christ's final three years, jumping around from miracle to miracle and parable to parable. Strong production values and professional Shakespearean actors from Canadian and British troops help overcome the weak narrative structure, but still can't transform the repetitious dialogue into a work of art. I can almost imagine Judas roping one of his companions into a drinking game for every time Christ says, "What I'm telling you is true."

Henry Ian Cusick nobly takes on the role of Christ in another classic "no win" situation. Not even Max von Sydow was able to invoke much humanity to Christ in another sincere vehicle—to do so would only incur the wrath of Christians who all have their own ideas about the "true" nature of Christ. Thus, Cusick attempts a straight dutiful interpretation—smiling benignly as his disciples, raging at the moneylenders in the temple, looking appropriately soulful when "his time has come," and shedding a single tear for Lazarus to accompany the "Jesus wept" verse. Unfortunately, the overall performances play out so flatly that they don't inspire passion in the viewer. That won't matter to Calvinists, who were never that big on emotional responses anyway.

As far as authenticity, The Gospel of John deserves props. It goes far beyond the evangelistic 1979 Jesus and even Franco Zeffirelli's six-hour Jesus of Nazareth mini-series to achieve historical accuracy. Production designer Don Taylor meticulously researched the period to create sets as close to the actual period as humanly possible. The Temple in Jerusalem is spectacularly similar to archaeological models, and I was impressed with details like Pilate's rendering of Christ's crucifixion plaque in three languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Latin). The set design definitely highlights the production for its detailed accurate portrayals of time and place, despite external shooting in southern Spain.

I can imagine many Christians admiring this version for its obvious sincerity and professionalism, and it's certainly a noble experiment to do justice to John's less studied Gospel. Sunday school teachers will find it very useful to get their students to "read" the text without generic group reading. Slightly different nuances are found in John's text with more vilification of Judas and more sympathy for Pilate, as Jesus emphasizes the idea that God is truly in control of events (another idea that will appeal to Calvinists). So this film offers benefits for teachers and students when examined in conjunction with the other gospels or other films depicting these texts.

The film suffers from the same limitations placed on any production that strives primarily to re-create Christ's story accurately. Emphasis on maintaining the text "as is" universally renders the effort into an essentially passionless Bible story though the crucifixion achieves a PG-13 rating—non-controversial and highly praised by theologians, but devoid of drama. The Gospel of John is much more interesting than most other "historically accurate" Jesus films, but it certainly feels longer than its three hour running time. I still feel that stylistic and metaphorical adaptations work better on film like The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Godspell. But this contains enough of interest to warrant a look, and gives Christians who won't relate to Gibson's soon to be released film a theatrical release they can appreciate.
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