The Very Good Word

The Gospel of John converts without moralizing

Writing in his 1984 book The Epic Film, which includes an entire chapter devoted to cinematic adaptations of the New Testament, Derek Elley said that "To date there is no treatment of the Gospels which manages . . . to humanize the biblical text yet retain its epic stature." The Gospel of John is, at long last, that movie—and it's something more than that. Rather than the ethereal Christ figure common to much religious art, The Gospel of John's Jesus (played brilliantly by the Royal Shakespeare Company's Henry Ian Cusick) is a fundamentally human, impassioned rabbi, frustrated by the need to perform miracles as a way of proving himself, enraged by the sin he sees all about him. By showing the character from ever-shifting points of view (belonging to both Jesus' followers and his enemies), Saville allows an extraordinary sense of how Jesus might have appeared, to various eyes, as both prophet and deranged fanatic. And by adapting the Good News Bible Society's translation of the source text, which substitutes "the Jewish authorities" for "the Jews," John Goldsmith's screenplay goes a long way toward diffusing the guilt-by-association implication of the entire Jewish people in Christ's death. (Among the many important points it brings to the fore is that Jesus and his original followers were all themselves Jewish by birth.) But what makes The Gospel of John so different, so much more accessible and, ultimately, so much more moving than many of the faith-based films and biblical epics that have preceded it is that it seeks not to preach nor to proselytize. Rather, it aims simply to relate a great and enveloping story—one that may lead us to ponder the things that unite (rather than distance) peoples of differing belief systems, and may compel us to marvel at the many wonderful and horrible endeavors undertaken in the name of religion.

Though it signifies something of a watershed moment in what might be called America's New Religious Cinema, Drabinsky himself is quick to point out the broader goals of the film. "I guess you have to put it into that generic category," he says, "but to me doing a film of a segment of the Bible is really filming a great piece of literature, whether it's religious or not. The words have relevance in a secular world as much as a religious world as far as I'm concerned."

Whether The Gospel of John can win over moviegoers weaned on a diet of more secular cinematic fare remains to be seen. With the exception of Holocaust-set pictures and horror films that employ the Catholic Church as a background for demonology, religion per se has largely ceased to exist in mainstream movies—and it's something even Drabinsky sees as a worrisome conundrum. "When issues stop being debated, discussed and analyzed from a religious perspective," he says, "higher levels of intolerance are there."

The Gospel Of John was directed by Philip Saville; written by John Goldsmith; produced by Garth H. Drabinsky and Chris Chrisafis; and stars Christopher Plummer and Henry Ian Cusick. Now playing countywide.

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