Rated PG-13 Running time: 2 hours 11 min.
Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 5; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
A Canadian-British production, The Gospel of John is directed imaginatively by Philip Saville, who knows how to keep our interest during the long speeches that are so unique to John’s Gospel. Actor Henry Ian Cusick is perhaps the finest movie Jesus yet to appear, the Shakespearean actor bringing both a sense of divine dignity and down to earth humanity to the role. John, in contrast to Mark with its “Messianic Secret,” is the only gospel in which Jesus boldly asserts his divinity in public, and this the actor does in believable style. He also is often shown smiling and picking up a child during his public appearances, and his attendance at the wedding in Cana shows his love of life and laughter. In regard to the miracle at the wedding, and the others, the director wisely follows the lead of Pasolini in the latter’s Gospel of St. Matthew by refusing to indulge in showy spectacle. One moment it is water in the jugs, but it is wine when dipped out by the wine steward. The same treatment is accorded the appearance of the angels to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb. She “sees” the supernatural beings; we see only the play of light on the garments laid out on the stone.
A good touch is at the beginning of the film when we see the sun rising and John the Baptist (Scott Handy) preaching and baptizing. When the Word is mentioned in the prologue there are several intercut shots of the shadow and sandaled feet of a man walking toward the river, but it is not until verse 14, “And the Word became flesh.” that the camera reveals the full figure of Jesus. Another good technique that keeps our eyes busy during the long discourse of Jesus in the Upper Room is the frequent use of flashbacks (done in black and white) at appropriate places in the speech. Also satisfying is the depiction of Jesus’ mother Mary (Diana Berriman), at the wedding and at the cross, as the mature woman she would have been, rather than as the youthful Madonna so often portrayed by filmmakers more interested in glamour than historicity.
A preamble before the title appears informing the audience that John is believed to be the last of the four gospels written some two generations after Jesus walked the land. Written at the time when Christianity was separating from organized Judaism, the Gospel reflects the controversy of this later conflict. This is helpful, with John being the Gospel most open to misuse by anti-Semites. I had not realized before just how confrontational John’s Jesus is, frequently clashing in public with the Jerusalem authorities. The Good News Bible helpfully translates the Greek word for “Jews” as “Jewish authorities,” so that we can see and hear that the gospel writer’s “the Jews” does not lump all the Jewish people together. There are numerous instances in which “many of the Jews” believe and accept Jesus. I was reminded anew by the joyfully running Woman at the Well, rushing to tell her fellow Samaritans the news about Jesus, that a woman was the first evangelist, even as later we see that the first witness to the resurrected Christ was also a woman.
As with both the gospels and other Jesus films, the disciples emerge from their relatively group anonymity only in a few scenes, but among the actors Daniel Kash is excellent as Peter, especially in the denial and the post-resurrection forgiveness scenes. Stephen Russell as Pontius Pilate and Richard Lintern as one of the leaders of the Pharisees handle well their thankless task of portraying the opposition. The PG-13 is mainly because of the brief scene of violence leading up to and including the crucifixion—and these are brief because John himself emphasizes more the divine Jesus, the transcendent Christ, rather than his human sufferer. (Note that, though at the moment of Jesus going with Philip to meet the Greeks enquiring after him, there is a touch of Gethsemane, there is no Garden of Gethsemane moment of doubt, plea, or prayer in John’s gospel.) Also the cleansing of the temple is a scene in which Jesus so vehemently lashes out at the sellers and overturns the tables of the moneychangers, that proponents of a “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” might be surprised.
The Gospel of John is the third of the Visual Bible films to be reviewed in these pages. The Gospel of Matthew and The Book of Acts were also word for word dramatizations of Biblical books, the text being the NIV. The Good News Bible text works better in this film, the dialogue retaining some of the dignity of the original but also having a naturalness that we would expect in conversations in the market place or the precincts of the temple. This time the producers had far more money to work with, and it shows in the sets and, I suspect in the case of the magnificent vistas we see of the Jerusalem skyline and the impressive temple, some computer-generated backdrops. I have used The Gospel of Matthew to good effect with Bible study groups, a helpful feature of the video being that the chapter and number of the verse being depicted are shown in the lower right corner of the screen. I presume that this will be done in the video format of this film. And it is available on DVD in a 3-disc delux edition with lots of background material, or on one disc. For information on obtaining the film, and an opportunity to see the trailer, log onto Vision Video or call them at 800 523-0226800 523-0226.