The method of Philip Saville’s The Gospel of John defies ordinary film criticism, and indeed ordinary movie viewing. It is, so to speak, not "based on" St. John’s Gospel at all, so much as it is St. John’s Gospel — visualized and enacted to be sure, and to that extent interpreted and glossed, but not "adapted" in the usual sense.
Dialogue and narration have been taken, verbatim and without omission or interpolation, from the American Bible Society’s Good News translation of the Fourth Gospel. Locations, performances, and effects are entirely at the service of the text.
Because of this, The Gospel of John has a more literary character than a typical biblical epic (e.g., “Jesus of Nazareth”), somewhat as a filmed production of a stage play is more theatrical than a film adapted from the play.
Which type of film is superior? As cinematic art, a freer adaptation that begins with a stage play or biblical narrative and reimagines it for the screen is better suited to take full advantage of the specific nature and character of film. But the other, more literal sort of approach enables one to experience in a purer way the intention and vision of the original author, the playwright or evangelist.
The Gospel of John combines in a unique way the visual engagement of a biblical epic with the textual fidelity of the Bible on CD or audiocassette. Dramatically, this hybrid approach necessarily comes with certain tradeoffs and limitations, but as an artistic meditation on sacred scripture it represents a unique and worthwile opportunity to experience the Word of God in a new way.
The third production of a Toronto-based outfit called Visual Bible International (whose first two efforts, based on Matthew and Acts, I haven’t seen), the three-hour Gospel of John has a number of strengths, including solid production values, strong acting, professional directing by Saville, and engaging narration by Christopher Plummer.
Working with an advisory committee of scholars representing Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish faiths and bringing expertise in scripture studies, theology, and archaeology, the filmmakers strove for accuracy in every aspect of the production. Though modestly budgeted, The Gospel of John looks remarkably authentic, from the meticulously researched costumes and artifacts to the exterior locations in southern Spain. Even the effective score incorporates instruments and musical textures from Jesus’ day.
Perhaps oddly, given this commitment to authenticity, the leading actors seem to be mostly British, though Middle-Eastern and black actors can be found among the extras. Jesus himself is played by Henry Ian Cusick, who like many Jesus actors speaks with an upper-class British accent that belies Jesus’ peasant origins.
The challenge of portraying God incarnate has daunted screen actors since the dawn of cinema. More than one would-be Jesus, in an effort to suggest transcendence and divine wisdom, has been driven to take refuge in solemn, portentous line readings and a flat affect. At the opposite extreme are vulnerable, one-sidedly "human" performances lacking in any sense of unique authority or transcendence (e.g., Jeremy Sisto in the 1999 Jesus TV movie; Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ).
Cusick’s compelling performance is both warmly human and also authoritative, surprising, even polemical. Cusick’s Jesus has the presence and confidence of a popular teacher unafraid to preach the same message to friend and foe, Jew and Roman, and easily transitions from addressing a large crowd to focusing entirely on a single individual.
Curiously, while this Jesus has a ready sense of humor and often smiles and laughs, the film rushes past that unique moment at Lazarus’s grave known for being the shortest verse in the Bible, "Jesus wept," without the slightest onscreen acknowledgment.
A few other awkward moments find the filmmakers seemingly unwilling or unable to try to visualize the narrative. This is perhaps part of the inevitable tradeoff for the film’s fidelity to the gospel text, which after all wasn’t written with dramatic performance in mind, any more than a stage play was written with cinematic production in mind. The tradeoffs in both cases may be ones that lovers of the original work may happily make for the sake of fidelity to the source, but that there are tradeoffs can’t be gotten around.
For example, interplay between narration and spoken dialogue that reads naturally on the printed page can sometimes become awkward when delivered aloud by separate voices. Assumptions and inferences that seem natural to readers of an ancient text can become less so to film audiences with shared expectations about due establishment of plot points. And events that were perhaps never intended to be visualized in the first place (the Bible is among the least visually descriptive of ancient texts) create cognitive dissonance when half-heartedly brought to the screen.
For example, when Jesus is arrested in the garden, Plummer dutifully reads John’s description of the soldiers falling to the ground before Jesus, while onscreen the actors take a few steps back for no clear reason, but conspicuously fail to stumble or in any way fall to the ground. Again, in the resurrection scenes when Jesus goes unrecognized, the film depicts Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene sitting on the ground with his face hidden among some plants, as if trying to pass for the gardener. (The animated The Miracle Maker handled this ambiguity with significantly more grace.)
Other times, director Saville and screenwriter John Goldsmith come up with creative and effective ways of serving the text. One of the film’s bright ideas is to visually break up footage of Jesus delivering his long monologue in chapters 15 through 17, not only by having him on the move from the upper room to the garden (that’s obvious), but also by throwing in black-and-white flashbacks illustrating the points Jesus is making with earlier vignettes from the film. For example, when Jesus warns his disciples that they will be hated and persecuted as he was, the film flashes back to Jesus’ earlier run-ins with unsympathetic Jewish authorities and hearers.
The film’s most pervasive weakness is, alas, the translation that provides the basis for the screenplay, the Good News Bible, which is neither literal nor literary, neither precise nor graceful. Compared to such translations as the Revised Standard Version, the Good News Bible is more a paraphrase than a translation, and not a particularly trusty paraphrase at that.
Take one of Jesus’ most distinctive utterances, "Amen, amen, I say to you" (sometimes rendered "Truly, truly…" or "Verily, verily…"). This usage is unknown outside of Christ’s own discourse, and appears to have been a unique expression of his own authoritative teaching. But in the Good News version it’s replaced with the banal phrase "I am telling you the truth," which not only obscures the uniqueness of Christ’s expression, or of its authority, but raises the possibility of doubt where none may have been present.
Cusick does what he can to personalize the lame GNB phraseology with his line readings, giving the words "I am telling you the truth" a distinctive delivery, effectively making it a kind of mantra. Even so, given the sheer number of times the expression occurs in John’s Gospel (about 25), the words pall long before the end of the film.
Other translation issues include John 6:55, where Jesus’ emphatic phrase "My flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink" is changed to "My flesh is the real food, and my blood is the real drink" (thereby suggesting a figurative and non-eucharistic significance rather than a literal, eucharistic meaning).
These are drawbacks, but don’t amount to basic objections. The gist of John’s narrative and presentation of Jesus’ teaching remains intact, and the performances and visualizations help bring the sacred text to life. Well mounted and honorably executed, The Gospel of John is the most religiously significant film in years.
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I purchased a video called The Gospel of John made in 2003. It’s a Canada/UK production. It seemed pretty good until we got to the “last Supper” part. Then things started falling apart. They show Mary Magdalene to be one of the apostles. She’s the only woman at the table and Jesus seems to be anointing her along with the apostles. Then she goes out to the garden with Jesus and the apostles. I find this to be heretical and would like to alert others to this deception. Thank you.
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