Low-key 'Gospel' a surprising success

Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ" may have gotten all the attention, but Philip Saville's "The Gospel of John" has beaten it to theaters (it opens Friday). More significantly, it has avoided the controversies that have dogged Gibson's project, even though it is based on a Gospel that emphasizes Jewish complicity in Jesus' crucifixion.

According to Mark Urman, head of ThinkFilm, the movie's distributor, the filmmakers steered clear of negative press in a variety of ways.

"There was this controversy surrounding Gibson's film as a result of the picking and choosing of who would see it," says Urman.

"John's" filmmakers preempted criticism by inviting to the table those who might have been disposed to criticize it. Most important, the film is taken word-for-word from the Gospel.

In John's version of events, Jesus (Henry Ian Cusick) travels the countryside preaching and performing miracles. He also comes into increasing conflict with Jewish authorities for declaring himself the son of God and calling into question their own piety. All of this is related either in voice-over or in a series of spirited dialogues.

"I found it fascinating that it was subordinate to the text" of the Gospel, Urman says. "Usually, they flesh these things out with Yvonne De Carlo making goo-goo eyes with Charlton Heston. That trivializes it."

"The Gospel of John" was produced by Visual Bible International Inc., as part of a series of word-for-word films based on the American Bible Society's Good News Bible.

It has no well-known names because the filmmakers didn't want to take the audience out of the film. The result has been a surprising success.

Urman got involved early on, thinking it would go straight to DVD-video, but when ThinkFilm executives saw the footage, they decided to put the movie out theatrically, opening initially in mid-size Southern cities and now expanding to larger areas where, Urman says, it has outgrossed such prestige films as "The Human Stain" in some theaters. Urman clearly relishes the film's under-the-radar status. Unlike many of the films ThinkFilm releases, Urman notes, "It's so funny that it's not the hot Sundance release."

-- John Clark

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