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The funny thing is that this was the first movie I've been assigned to review that I really did not want to see. It's not that I'm down on God but I have just seen way too many awful movies by Christian's, including some truly banal accounts of the life of Christ. It is beyond my comprehension how filmmakers can take the most fascinating, intelligent, radical person who, in my opinion, may have ever lived, and make him boring.
(Random aside: odd timing for release considering that John's Gospel does not have a birth narrative.) Anyway, I headed off to the theatre and the first thing I saw was a poster with a big quote from "Movieguide's" Ted Baehr praising the film.
"John", for those unfamiliar with the source material, is probably the most heady of all the gospels. It is full of symbolism and metaphor, with themes such as light/dark and love/conflict pervading the piece. These are repeated and emphasized as in a novel, with the thesis of the work in the opening narration which is rife with layers of meaning. The text is almost like early Christianity's fairy tale not in the sense that it's not true, but in the sense of feeling like a myth.
Because the movie is in the Visual Bible series, it is presented word-for-word from that text (Good News translation). In this format, the producers locked the director into an uncomfortable box, restricting him from letting action speak for itself really, of being unable to use his medium to its proper effect. Because they had to get every word of the entire book into three hours, the movie suffered from Harry Potter syndrome: too much source material so that there wasn't time for a breather or to craft actual scenes, and thus no opportunity to really connect with the characters. The narrator (a pleasant-sounding Christopher Plummer) has to break into the action to say asinine things like "Then Jesus turned to him and said," when we've just seen Jesus do that very thing. Word-for-word just doesn't translate to the visual medium of film there is simply no reason to have this distraction when we are able to see much of what the narrator describes. I don't see the point of word-for-word accuracy anyway, when they are using an English translation of a Greek text!
Still, even with this obvious weakness, I was extremely relieved to find that the lead actors were all quite good and this is one of the only Jesus movies that can make this claim. They read their lines effectively and spoke to one another as if they were really there and saying those words for the first time. Unfortunately, the insistent narration and poor line readings of the extras distracted from the strength of the main characters and the overall flow of the picture.
For the most part, Henry Ian Cusick does a remarkable job as Jesus. He is the first I've seen in a long time who is absolutely sure of who he is and isn't afraid of his divinity. He seems comfortable as both God and man. His compassion for the world is quite obvious, as is his impatience with the religious constructs that mankind has imposed on itself. This is the first Jesus movie I've ever seen in which Christ actually comes off as genuinely emotional, wise, confrontational, and even a bit loony. Watching him say these outrageous things about his divinity, I empathized with the shock of the Jews hearing him. I finally understood why people wouldn't have liked him, the things he said were truly revolutionary and would have been very difficult for Jews to accept.
The major tension of the film is Jesus vs. the Pharisees, and this is played to great effect. The actors were very engaged and the arguments were exciting. I actually felt sympathy for both sides: the Jewish authorities were not presented as stupid or blind, but truly believed they were doing the right thing. Jesus is actually mistrusted and even hated by people other than the authorities before his crucifixion. Usually the crowd turning on him at that moment is a surprise because until then they had loved him, but this movie shows crowds disagreeing with him and even attempting to kill him multiple times.
The best parts of the film occurred when the pace did slow down a bit to allow a scene to take place. This was usually during miracles, which were among the most authentic and powerful Ive seen depicted on screen. The reactions of those whom Jesus touches the paralytic, the woman caught in adultery, and especially the blind man felt completely real. The power of God in their healings was revealed in the looks on their faces, their trembling hands, their tears of joy. And not only were they healed, but they continued as characters in the film, following Jesus and standing up for him with the testimony of their own lives.
The Gospel of John suffers a great deal in its last hour or so from it's adherence to the word-for-word format. Jesus has a speech that goes on for some four chapters in the Bible, and translating that much talking to the screen was a huge challenge. The director keeps our attention by having the characters walk around and change locations throughout the speech, and by using flashbacks. But for the most part, this is just distracting (you're left wondering why they are going from room to cave to garden to another cave and so on). John is probably the most wordy of the Gospels, which was an obstacle in bringing it to the screen. Had the director been allowed to cut some of the text and tell more of the story visually, it would have made for a much more compelling ending.
As it is, we are so tired by the time Jesus' trial and crucifixion comes around (we're at about 2.5 hours by now) that there is no tension or sadness at that horrible event. As most violence is done off-screen, we don't even have a sense of Christ's pain. In fact, the most violent moment of the movie is when they break the legs of the two others being crucified with Jesus and they are not the ones we are supposed to sympathize with in that scene!
One important detail was the obvious Jewishness of Jesus and his disciples. Careful attention to costumes, hair and casting (he's not blond and blue-eyed) reminded the audience of this fact regularly. Thus, when the Jewish Authorities the filmmakers wisely chose a translation that didnt place the blame on all Jews attack Jesus, we understand that they are simply the powerful among his own people. Even though they are quite obviously the villains, the film never feels anti-Semitic.
Speaking of anti-Semitism and violence, I can't help but bring up Mel Gibson's The Passion. Though the same story as this movie, Gibson's version is being touted as prejudiced and overly violent. Yet we see here that the source material requires that the Jewish authorities be the bad guys (as Jews were also the heroes), so why aren't more people up in arms about The Gospel of John, or even the Bible itself? Also, the weak violence in John, as mentioned above, ended up ruining the importance of the crucifixion and belittling Christ's sacrifice. The violence in the Passion, reputed to be extreme, will nonetheless probably get the point across strongly that Jesus really did suffer.
As a person who is intimately familiar with this source material and with the myriad of bad movies made from it I brought a great deal of bias into the theatre with me. I would be fascinated to know the reaction of a person who has no knowledge of the Bible or Jesus, or who doesnt believe that this story is true. I can only judge, however, by what I do know, and I would say in the end that this gospel is better expressed as a book than a film.
In Selected Southland Venues.
By: Anastasia McAteer,
Hollywood Media ONE Culture Critic