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.

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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