In a case of the word made celluloid, Judge Dan Mancini reviews this diligently literal translation into film of the gospel account of Christ's ministry.
The Word became a human being and, full of grace and truth, lived among us.—John 1:14
Produced by Visual Bible International, The Gospel of John was originally released on DVD last year as an exorbitantly priced three-disc set, intended primarily as a teaching tool for churches. Motivated by the astronomical financial success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, Buena Vista has teamed with VBI to release this considerably less expensive two-disc version that retains all the supplements of the original release, adds a second cut of the film, and alters the packaging to closer resemble that of Gibson's picture.
As a product of Visual Bible International, The Gospel of John exists less to entertain than to bring the New Testament book to celluloid life in all its unexpurgated glory. Philip Saville (Metroland) was brought on to helm the project. Though he was basically given creative control, the single ground rule he faced was a doozy: He could not alter or remove a single word of the apostle John's gospel.
Facts of the Case
Adhering strictly to the most lyrical and philosophical of the four biblical accounts of the life of Christ, The Gospel of John opens with John the Baptist's (Scott Handy, Shadowlands) proclamation of the coming messiah. The story is most concerned with Jesus' (Henry Ian Cusick, 9/Tenths) divinity, and most of the action centers on his performance of miracles—giving sight to the blind, causing the lame to walk, and raising his friend Lazarus from the dead, to name just a few. These supernatural events both affirm his divinity and provoke Jerusalem's dogmatic religious leaders, the Pharisees. Jews in Palestine are looking for a religiously traditional/politically radical messiah to free them from Roman oppression. Jesus gives them, instead, an apolitical religious radical who talks repeatedly of the importance of knowing God and points to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees' devotion to religious ritual and lack of compassion for their fellow human beings. This religious/political conflict comes to a head inside the city walls of Jerusalem during Passover when Jesus is arrested by the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, and crucified by order of Roman proconsul Pontius Pilate.
If nothing else, The Gospel of John is unique. Its closest cinematic antecedent isn't Gibson's Passion, but Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). That film also adheres fairly strictly to its source, though Pasolini injects it with a bit of his own Marxist sensibilities. Pasolini was inspired to make his film when, stuck in a hotel room and bored, he picked up The Bible, read the first gospel, and realized the Jesus in its pages was unlike any he'd ever seen on film. As one would expect, Pasolini's film replaces much of the biblical text with images, and here is where it and The Gospel of John part ways. The Gospel of John never translates text into image, rather it uses image to augment the text. Every word of the gospel text appears in the film, the lion's share of it narrated by Christopher Plummer (The Insider).
This anti-cinematic approach has obvious drawbacks. Portions of Plummer's narration are extraneous, merely telling us what we're seeing. Viewed purely as a film, divorced from its source material, The Gospel of John is structurally odd, sometimes repetitive, and (no surprise here) overly verbose. But the producers never intended the film to be considered in isolation from its source, and if the viewer is as fascinated with the biblical text as the filmmakers, the movie's odd rhythms become transparent.
By toeing the biblical line, The Gospel of John becomes a striking film for much the same reason Pasolini's is striking: the Jesus it presents is entirely divorced from the passive, milquetoast version of the popular culture. Once committed to the concept of making a word-for-word film adaptation of the gospel story, the filmmakers were wise in singling out the apostle John's text for their source. Not only is it limited to the three years of Jesus' ministry, creating a more streamlined narrative by eliding the birth-in-a-manger tableau, but it offers an extremely human portrait of Christ while placing thematic emphasis on his divinity. Its Son of Man is deeply offended by hollow religiosity. He debates the Pharisees loudly and passionately; shows an intense compassion for his disciples even as their cluelessness and hypocrisy exasperate him; and violently trashes the tables of the temple court's money changers, who are there to make a buck off of religious ritual. Meanwhile, his words and miraculous deeds make a direct and forceful claim for his divinity. The Gospel of John succeeds perhaps better than any other biblical film in presenting the Christian mystery at the center of Jesus' person: that he is entirely human and entirely divine.
Visual Bible International's original DVD release of The Gospel of John spread the three-hour feature across two discs. This new release offers the entire film on the first disc, and the transfer doesn't seem to suffer from compression as a result. The clean image is presented in an anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1 aspect ratio with solid and accurate colors. I didn't have the original release on hand to do a side-by-side comparison, but the video here didn't leave much to complain about. The 5.1 Surround audio presents clean dialogue, and uses placement of sound effects and music in the rear stage to a create full-bodied, if not explosive, sonic experience. Subtitle options in English, Spanish, and French are provided. The feature is indexed into 34 chapters that are titled and also provide corresponding chapter and verse references for the original text so that the DVD can literally be used as a visual edition of the gospel.
This set is loaded with extras, most of which are found on the second disc. The lone supplement on Disc One is an enhanced viewing mode. When selected, it periodically places an icon on the right side of the screen which, when selected, takes the viewer to text entries that act as footnotes, providing explanations of terminology, history, and theology.
Disc Two contains a 129-minute edit of the film, which is basically a waste of time. It neither solves the cinematic problem of the original cut's excessive narration, nor benefits from the novelty of presenting the gospel text uncut. It is the worst of both worlds.
The second disc is loaded with an impressive array of informative supplements. A section entitled "Historical Background" contains three featurettes, each comprised mainly of interviews with the scholars who made up the Academic Advisory Committee that acted as consultants on the film. In Jesus, Son of God they discuss John's gospel and how it is thematically and linguistically unique from its three companions. In The World of Jesus they talk about the religious and political milieu in which the film is set. Word for Word is about the intent behind and challenges in making a film based entirely on The Gospel of John, without omitting any of its language and without adding material from the other gospels. "The Historical Background" section is rounded out by a glossary of terms, and a bibliography and filmography with suggestions for additional reading and viewing.
"Production Design" contains individual interviews with seven of the film's crew, including director Philip Saville, screenwriter John Goldsmith (The Apocalypse Watch), and cinematographer Miroslaw Baszak (2004's Dawn of the Dead).
"About the Cast" has text-based biographies and filmographies for 21 members of the cast, as well as brief video interviews with Christopher Plummer and Henry Ian Cusick. "About the Filmmakers" is similarly comprised of biographies/filmographies for 17 members of the crew. And "About the Academic Advisory Committee" offers credentials and a list of published works for each of the nine scholars who participated as consultants on the film.
The interactive map of the Holy Land is exactly what it sounds like, a map that can be navigated via remote control. Its contents focus specifically on the cities in which the various miracles presented in the film took place.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer for The Gospel of John (the film had a brief and limited theatrical run during the time when The Passion of the Christ was dominating the box office top ten), as well as a trailer for the next collaboration between Visual Bible International and Philip Saville, The Gospel of Mark.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Whatever its strengths, The Gospel of John does suffer from some of the flaws that plague biblical epics. The production and costume design work well enough, but have the sort of clean artifice one associates with Classic Hollywood spectacles or BBC period dramas. To be fair, sets, props, and costumes are probably about as true-to-history as the budget would allow. A more significant flaw is that, while the screenplay is entirely faithful to its source, it's still an English translation. I think time will show that The Passion of the Christ's greatest challenge to biblical movie conventions wasn't its no-holds-barred depiction of graphic violence, but its use of Aramaic and Latin dialogue. Post-Passion, it's surprising the degree to which supposed first-century Jews and Romans speaking in proper British accents is distracting. It was once a cultural concession we looked past without much thought, but Gibson's film seems to have forever changed the rules, upping the ante on linguistic realism. Still, since the raison d'être of the movie was to bring the unexpurgated text of an English translation of The Gospel of John to the screen, I'll give the filmmakers a pass.
The decision to use the Good News Bible translation as the basis for the film's screenplay is a bummer, though. It's probably not fair to fault the filmmakers since they were in a sort of Catch-22. The Good News Bible is a dynamic equivalence rather than a literal translation and, while its more common language must have made things easier on the actors, Plummer's narration suffers a bit from its inelegance. John's is the most lyrical of the gospels and, in my opinion, the Good News Bible is a little hamfisted in handling its prose. The essential meaning is left intact, but much of the concise beauty and precision of language is lost. The choice of translation does help the actors, who do a mostly fine job with the dialogue, stumbling only occasionally because the words weren't written with dramatic performance in mind. One gets the feeling they're more hamstrung by the demand for complete fidelity to the source than the dialogue itself (in one of the supplemental featurettes, director Philip Saville talks candidly about the challenges the actors faced in finding and maintaining the emotion of a scene, while ensuring there were no misplaced thes or ands that would force a retake).
The Gospel of John is difficult to judge as art. It isn't entirely successful as a pure cinematic experience, but the filmmakers achieved their stated goal and made a unique movie in the process. The picture will appeal most to Christians and those familiar with the New Testament, but should also fascinate anyone interested in seeing a cinematic interpretation of Jesus at radical odds with those in earlier epics like The Greatest Story Ever Told, Jesus of Nazareth, or The Last Temptation of Christ.
However problematic the film, judging the DVD is a no-brainer. The technical presentation is excellent, and there are tons of great extras despite the superfluous second cut of the movie.
Regardless of the difficulty of assessing this one, I'll forego any wisecracks about washing my hands of it, and just declare it not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Buena Vista
• Enhanced Viewing Option
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