The Very Good Word

The Gospel of John converts without moralizing

Little in Canadian entrepreneur Garth Drabinsky's long and varied career—which has included stints as entertainment lawyer, theater producer, and co-founder of the Cineplex Odeon cinema circuit—could have prepared him for the demands of his latest project: a $20 million film based word for word on the Gospel of John. Drabinsky was enlisted as the movie's primary creative producer by the Toronto-based Visual Bible International, a "publicly traded faith-based media company" that plans an entire series of films based on the books of the Bible. The goal is to film all 66 of them—of which The Gospel of John is the first.

All this at a time when so much attention has been lavished on the controversies surrounding Mel Gibson's forthcoming (but without major-studio distribution) The Passion of Christ that many might reasonably wonder why another team has chosen to mount its own epic version of Christ's life, especially one in which the best-known star—the film's narrator, Christopher Plummer—never appears on screen. Beyond which, the Gospel of John itself has long been stigmatized as the most anti-Semitic of the four Gospels, containing, in the original Greek, some 67 occurrences of the word Ioudaioi, which has customarily been translated into English as "the Jews." And Drabinsky himself is Jewish, as are several of the film's other producers. So it comes as little surprise that there's more than a tinge of weariness in Drabinsky's voice during a recent phone interview. "It's been a long, tough 15 months," he tells me. "It's a very difficult picture to do, and to do responsibly, in terms of dealing with all of the areas of accountability. That was fundamental to me from the beginning. There was no point in doing it if we couldn't deal with all of the constituencies and make them happy in the process."

Indeed, no less a cultural gatekeeper than The New York Times seemed flummoxed by the very existence of The Gospel of John. In a September 29 dispatch from the paper's Arts/Culture desk, Daniel J. Watkin suggested that the movie had "slipped in beneath the radar," despite its having just world-premiered earlier that month as part of the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival, generating an enthusiastic review by Todd McCarthy in Variety and leading the filmmakers to contemplate a wider release than the originally scheduled Bible Belt cities of the South and Midwest. The Gospel of John debuts this weekend in New York City and Los Angeles, and though its arrival is hardly as unexpected as some earlier reports have suggested (the film has performed strongly in its limited heartland release), its success is by no means assured.

While the last decade has witnessed an undeniable resurgence, on television (Touched by an Angel), in literature (the Left Behind series) and in pop music (Lifehouse, Creed, Jars of Clay), of works conveying religious (or, more specifically, Christian) themes, faith-based movies have experienced a somewhat tougher go of it. Despite a few successes—1999's The Omega Code from Costa Mesa-based Trinity Broadcasting Network reaped $12 million at the domestic box—there has remained an undeniable schism between secular and non-secular movie culture, with those films perceived as evangelical remaining the almost exclusive domain of independent production companies reliant on the financial contributions of wealthy benefactors. (Not helping matters has been the generally poor quality of the films themselves.) And though such films have begun to appear more frequently, enjoying commercial engagements in mainstream cinemas, they are largely self-distributed entities whose backers rent out theaters for upfront flat rates (an all-but-defunct process known as four-walling) and promote their titles via Christian Web sites and mailing lists. It is, in effect, a niche operation. To even that niche audience, however, The Gospel of John may seem an intimidating prospect. Three hours long, and overseen not just by its director, Philip Saville, but by an entire advisory board of biblical scholars organized to ensure the film's letter-perfect accuracy—giving new meaning to the expression "filmmaking by committee"—the movie sounds more like a rigorously academic Sunday-school exercise than it does a movie. Even Saville, speaking by phone from London, concedes that, at first glance, the film appears to be "a tour de force of endurance."

"It's demanding," adds Saville, "to have to hear Jesus say 'I'm telling you the truth' so many times—I think 16 or 17 times."

Yet, appearances often are deceiving. Though I approached The Gospel of John with some trepidation, I've now seen the film twice and consider it to be an extraordinary achievement. Extraordinary for the way it casts its oft-told events in such a fresh light that they do not seem so familiar at all. Extraordinary for its simultaneously intimate and epic scale, eschewing the decorous pageantry customary to the genre in favor of small-scale, Vermeer-like scenes depicting the minutiae of everyday life at the dawn of recorded history. (Even the crucifixion scene is treated with a wholesale aversion to spectacle.) Extraordinary—most of all—for the way the very aesthetic limitations (the lengthy narration, the fidelity to the text) that would seem to stultify the film instead imbue it with a mesmerizing intensity.

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