On the surface a project to transfer one of the four Christian gospels literally to film seems a rather foolhardy enterprise, almost predestined to fail. And releasing it at precisely the time when the furor over Mel Gibson’s forthcoming “The Passion”–also based closely on the scriptural narratives, if the reports are accurate–is raging appears almost a direct provocation. But in the event “The Gospel of John” proves to be a surprisingly professional, smoothly realized adaptation of the scriptural book. Faithful to its source and sensitively translated into cinematic terms through well-chosen narration and dramatizations that are economical, nicely paced and tasteful, the film impresses not only as a testimony of belief but as one of the better-crafted examples of Biblical film in recent years.
The picture, made by a Canadian company called Visual Bible International, uses the Good News Bible of the American Bible Society as its translation of choice, and transfers the text to the screen in a screenplay by John Goldsmith that mixes well-inflected off-screen readings by Christopher Plummer, in his richest tones, with recreations of the successive episodes performed by a solid cast of relative unknowns, mostly performers from the British and Canadian stage, led by Henry Ian Cusick as Jesus. Cusick is very good at expressing the essentially tranquil, placid nature of Christ, but also expertly shows his passionate side (the latter in the scene of Jesus chasing the merchants from the temple grounds, and of course in the final sequences dealing his trial and execution). He’s aided greatly by Seville’s sensitive direction, which keeps the action moving forward even at points which might have been slowed to a crawl for piety’s sake. And while the supporting cast is solid overall, a few performers stand out. Daniel Kash makes a strong, virile but uncertain Peter, and Stephen Russell an almost sympathetic Pilate (though it must be pointed out that one unsightly lower tooth is a blemish on his appearance). The film is visually fine for a relatively low-budget effort, too; the Spanish exteriors were expertly chosen, and they’re used well. Apart from the Temple sequences, there’s no effort to rival Hollywood Biblical epics in grandiosity; everything is kept appropriately intimate and small-scaled.
Of course, the exclusive dependence on John’s gospel means that many of the most familiar episodes of Jesus’ life aren’t included here. One will search in vain for a nativity scene, a dance of the seven veils preceding the death of John the Baptist, or Christ’s temptation in the desert; those are to be found in the synoptic gospels, not that of John. On the other hand, the film is scrupulously attentive to what is in John, faithfully recounting the miracles and the explanation of the purpose behind them (and doing so simply, without the extravagant effects a studio effort would have employed). Literal fidelity does mean that the narrative sometimes has a jerky quality, since the gospel itself pays little attention to smoothness of construction. And at times it does seem to be taken too far, as when Jesus intones the same words, “I am telling you the truth,” with very major pronouncement. One wishes that the makers had felt it possible to drop a few usages of the sentence, which eventually becomes almost a mantra, or might at least have altered the wording ever so slightly to mitigate the repetitive effect.
In addition, “The Gospel of John” could well be the focus of the same charges of anti-Semitism that have been leveled against Gibson’s still-unseen picture; the depiction of the Jewish authorities, following the Biblical text, is highly negative, and some will undoubtedly consider it potentially inflammatory. (Indeed, most of the particular episodes and quotations which have been objected to in “The Passion” are found here as well, unabashedly portrayed.) Of course, this film hasn’t been made by a superstar Oscar-winner, and is unlikely to receive the attention (and opprobrium) that Gibson’s effort invites; so the objections raised in this case are likely to be muted. Unfortunately, that means that it probably won’t get the respect it deserves, either. “The Gospel of John” may offend some, and those who anticipate being in that category would be wise to avoid it. But if looked at without preconceptions it’s a dignified, reverent telling of the story told in this single gospel, and for the most part it avoids becoming ponderous or pretentious, generally finding simple, often elegant solutions to the problem of transferring the text to the screen. Though, especially at a full three hours, the result may not be a film for everybody, many will find it inspiring and uplifting–not quite the equal of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s starkly mesmerizing “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (1966), but a not unworthy, though more conventional, complement to it. Trust me; I’m telling you the truth.