A New Testament film with zip about Mel Gibson or the ADL
THE GOSPEL OF JOHN (Philip Saville, Canada/Britain, 2003, 6)
THE GOSPEL OF JOHN had a marketing strategy that raised eyebrows — it opened weeks ago in a bunch of medium-sized and small markets in the South and Midwest and has stayed away from the blue-state major Metro areas where films customarily open. It only began screening in Washington and Los Angeles last weekend, and best I can tell from the film’s Web site, New York or Chicago runs aren’t even planned. It looked like the kind of marketing strategy an example of what Eve Tushnet calls “Junk For Jesus” would use. Actually though, THE GOSPEL OF JOHN is better than that, much better than it looks. Still, as long as no validly ordained priest said the Eucharistic Prayer over the cans of film, THE GOSPEL OF JOHN is still a movie and has to be evaluated as such.
The basic idea of following John (or any of the other Gospels) word-for-word is unfortunately a very bad one. The Gospels simply are not written like screenplays. There are maybe a couple of characters besides Jesus who get more than one scene. There are no real conversations; there isn’t much description but a lot of narration. They’re mostly “Jesus said X” and “Jesus did Y.” And so THE GOSPEL OF JOHN, even more than most Jesus films that felt free to expand or contract as drama requires, often has Christopher Plummer narrating the action along only to interrupt it by breaking into dialogue, often of not very great detail. The effect is kinda like drifting into and out of song sometimes even within a line, as in Alain Resnais’ SAME OLD SONG. I don’t mean that as a compliment — it emphasizes THE GOSPEL OF JOHN as an illustration rather than as a movie, the “Junk for Jesus” ethic.
But though THE GOSPEL OF JOHN never does overcome the basic misguidedness of its pitch, the film-makers do work well with the grain of the wood and make the best possible film that could have come from this wack idea. Still, I hope that Visual Bible International, which describes itself on the film’s Web site as “having secured the exclusive worldwide rights to develop, produce and market film adaptations on a word-for-word basis, including both Books of the Old and New Testaments,” doesn’t try this trick with … um … Romans or Second Corinthians.
John differs from the other three Gospels, in both tone and content, much more than other three differ among themselves. Relatively speaking:
— There are more miracles and theologytalk in John and fewer parables and practical sayings. For example, His most famous speech and the one most concerned with right conduct, the Sermon on the Mount, is never even alluded to in John. By contrast, the famous opening verses of John are nearly impossible to get your mind around purely in modern English. Plus, in the place the Agony in Gethsemane would occur, John gives us four chapters of prayer and theological exhortation to the Disciples.
— There is more Glory and certitude in John and less Sorrow and doubt. Neither Satan’s temptations nor the Agony in Gethsemane are even mentioned. The Jesus of John is never in doubt as He goes around performing miracles to show Who He is and has an absolute air of knowing what must happen. He nearly has to chase Judas out of the Last Supper — “go betray me now,” practically. The words from the cross in John are “it is finished” rather than “why have you forsaken me?” (as in Matthew and Mark), again emphasizing the playing out of Providence.
But why I think THE GOSPEL OF JOHN is a worthwhile movie is that the filmmakers effectively “roll with these punches,” these particular emphases in John’s Gospel. And know they *are* punches (to overstrain the metaphor). While I’ve said that John is a theology-heavy Gospel, one of the virtues of THE GOSPEL OF JOHN comes in explaining that theology. It happens in one of the few moments when the film discards its literalist premise. On the night of the Last Supper, we get impressionistic flashbacks to various things that we’ve seen, and now Jesus’ words explain what the miracles were all about, bearing witness to the Father who sent Him. The “that they all may be one” prayer is accompanied to half-second shots of all the various sorts of people Jesus encountered.
The film benefits enormously from a quietly excellent central performance from Henry Ian Cusick, one which plays to the way Jesus is portrayed in John. This is a Jesus Who is sure in His skin, often happy and, yes smiling along while trying to enlighten the world that often rejects Him — never either a tortured doubter (the only tears you see from Cusick are when Martha, the sister of Lazarus, weeps at his death) nor a flat icon of good-two-shoesness. He sometimes tosses fire and brimstone as needed (the money-changers in the Temple), but only rarely. In other words, you see why His disciples would follow Him. And that He knows He is the Son of God and the Messiah, and doesn’t find that or his mission remarkable. The film’s portrayal of Jesus’ miracles is particularly fine. They are presented literally, but in an offhand way. There’s no thunder or zapping or wailing or attempts to explain them away. Or even an attempt to awe us. Instead, the wedding partiers pour water into their jugs and a few seconds later, wine comes out. We never see Jesus “resurrected,” as if in the payoff shot. Simply, as the Gospel states, we see Mary Magdelene come and find the empty tomb and then she comes across Jesus outside. The GOSPEL OF JOHN manages to be a low-key, reverent film without slipping into the sort of pious bombast that stifles drama.
THE GOSPEL OF JOHN uses a recent translation, the Good News Bible, that is very understandable though it consequently loses some poetic/ritualistic glory. It took me a few minutes to realize that the reason Jesus kept saying “I am telling you the truth,” is that this is the oath better known in its King James translation as “verily, verily I say unto you.” The Douay-Reims has the (more literal) translation: “amen, amen, I say to you.” Either of the older translations has more artistic merit and probably a greater comfort level, but it’s safer to say the later one is clearest and least (in our terms of reference) adorned.
As for THE GOSPEL OF JOHN’s negative virtues, the foremost is that there isn’t very much (that I recall anyway) bombastic cinematic underwriting of the Jesus’ holiness, beyond what He says and does. It also helps in this vein that the disciples and the other characters are all played by actors unknown to me, avoiding the spot-the-star travesty that was, e.g. THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (that’s how *great* this story is … every star in town is in it). The score is restrained as Gospel films go. Only in a very few places, e.g. is Jesus is framed in those cliched glowing halos. More often in fact, we look at a plain sun to represent Jesus as a light unto the world. There are a couple of halo shots very early on, but that’s before Jesus has said a word and we’re mostly seeing Him through the eyes of John the Baptist. The film actually shows Jesus’ shadow and feet before we see His face, as the narrator says “and the Word became man.”
Yes, the feet. One of the most moving ceremonies to me personally is the Holy Thursday custom for the Pope to wash the feet of 12 Roman parishioners, which most bishops also follow. In THE GOSPEL OF JOHN, the disciples’ feet are shown to be dirty, and this is what a film about the Gospels can offer that even the Gospels themselves cannot — tactility, presentness. To put it bluntly, we see the dirt on the Disciples feet; we have seen the dust in the streets of the Holy Land. Thus when Christ humbles himself before his followers after the meal, we see what it means for the Word to be made flesh — that it rubbed elbows with dirt. Consistent with its offhand manner, THE GOSPEL OF JOHN doesn’t ever rub our faces in its cinematic ability to make us see and feel the things of the world. But it’s there, present, and frankly quite moving.