It's hard to accept 'Gospel'

Movie Reviews

December 25, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Watching The Gospel of John is like listening to a religious audiotape while working a picture flip-book of the Bible.

As Christopher Plummer reads the complete text of the painfully unpoetic and explanatory Good News translation of this gospel, director Philip Saville struggles mightily to keep the action in sync with the text -- no matter how superfluous the text is rendered by the images and the actors' faces. Unlike theatrical experiments such as Story Theater or the Royal Shakespeare Company's Nicholas Nickleby, which use narration to bring audiences into the lifeblood of a story, The Gospel of John appears intended as a devotional rather than a dramatic experience. All the words are kept because they add up to the Word.

You may be amazed to see that someone named John Gold- smith gets sole script credit; of course, the John in the title wasn't around for arbitration.

Henry Ian Cusick plays Jesus with excellent diction and a bright-eyed belief in his own glory. He has a brief stint as an action hero when he throws the moneylenders off the steps of the Temple, but otherwise he'd fit right onto a soapbox in Trafalgar Square.

Saville presents the stated miracles matter-of-factly -- the creation of wine from water, the multiplication of loaves and fishes, the various healings and so on. But the movie's imaginative poverty suggests a bigger miracle that goes unexplained: Jesus' repeated ability to slip away from what the Good News translation calls the "Jewish Authorities" even when they have him surrounded. The opening titles take pains to point out that Jesus was a Jew preaching to other Jews and that his lifetime marked a period of exceptional friction in their community.

The "Jewish Authorities," though, are the bad guys. They condemn Jesus for performing miracles on the Sabbath. Amid the low-key robes of the disciples and their followers, the Jewish Authorities' resplendent shawls, headpieces and side-curls register the way the Pope's get-up does in Brecht's Galileo -- as signs of hollow authority.

Then again, for those in the theater who don't believe Jesus is the Son of God, his continued insistence that his deeds come from his Father are hardly a persuasive defense. The Gospel of John may be an effective religious tool for some Christians, but for non-Christians it can seem a curiosity at best, and even for those with one foot in and one foot out of the fold, it's probably less a test of faith than of endurance.

The Gospel of John

Starring Henry Ian Cusick

Directed by Philip Saville

Released by ThinkFilm

Rated PG-13

Time 180 minutes

Sun score **

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