Is he or isn’t he? Jesus, that is. That’s the question posed in “Joshua,” a well-meaning but flat and awfully simple-minded parable that aims to be uplifting and ends up rather silly. We’ve had plenty of pictures over the years in which the devil, or his suspected spawn, comes to earth to do his nefarious work (everything from “The Omen” to “Megiddo”), but the possibility of Christ’s returning to reiterate his message has been pretty much ignored. (The “Oh, God!” series hardly counts.) A second visit by Jesus to earth is a potentially intriguing cinematic premise–one can get a notion of how effective it could be from Jules Dassin’s irritatingly arty but provocative “He Who Must Die” (1957). But in Jon Purdy’s sickly sweet film it’s turned into a heavy-handed parable that insults a viewer’s intelligence–and wastes his time.
Based on a novel by Joseph Girzone, a retired Roman Catholic priest, the picture details how the arrival of the handsome, mysterious titular stranger (Tony Goldwyn)–a master woodworker, no less–brings a message of love and charity to the small town of Auburn. Joshua acts as a catalyst for much positive change in the community. He spearheads the rebuilding of a Baptist church damaged by a storm. He helps a woman (Stacy Edwards) move past her grief at the loss of her husband. He assists another wife regain the love of an abusive husband by–among other things–teaching her to cook. He’s instrumental in bringing a disaffected young guitarist to God in the form of a Christian rock band. He aids a folksy assistant Catholic priest (Kurt Fuller) overcome the control of the rigid, legalistic pastor (F. Murray Abraham), while simultaneously carving a beautiful statue of St. Peter on commission from the latter. And then he gets really serious. He faces down a money-grubbing faith healer by actually curing the blind; and he restores a dead man to life (curing the would-be preacher’s dream-destroying stutter in the process). And, finally, he melts the opposition of the unyielding pastor and instructs the pope, no less, to get the Christian message across to the world more effectively. The pontiff is deeply moved. (In view of all the wonderful things Joshua does, it’s surprising that he can’t do something about the life- threatening obesity of several of the townsmen.)
There’s sincerity aplenty in “Joshua,” but not much subtlety or sense. The brand of Christianity preached in the picture is of the most vanilla kind–basically the messiah’s message is the same as the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love”–and it teaches simply that everybody should be nice to one another and that denominations don’t matter. (Peculiarly, members of the Catholic and Baptist congregations seem indiscriminately to attend each others’ services.) The Christian life seems basically to come down to hugging, being nice, and maintaining a vacuous expression on one’s face.
Given the banality of the narrative, the actors haven’t much chance. Goldwyn maintains a pose of serenity, which is all the role demands. As the stiff-necked Father Tardone, Abraham smolders in his usual way and then goes all gooey at the end, while Fuller seems all too authentically a bumbler as the sweet Father Pat. Everybody else is just window-dressing, most embarrassingly Giancarlo Giannini as the pope. Purdy’s direction is desultory; things move along with the solemnity of a funeral procession, doubtlessly to give a falsely profound feeling to the proceedings. Technically the picture is at the level of a decent direct-to-video flick, which is a category within which it would be more at home.
There are supernatural forces aplenty in “Joshua,” but perhaps the most astonishing thing in it is that in the tiny community depicted here, the Catholic parish has two full-time priests permanently on tap. In this era of clerical shortages in the church, that constitutes a real miracle.