It's certainly reverent

Times Staff Writer

The words of the Bible have such power to those who believe that a natural desire to possess them in their entirety is inevitable. In simpler times, entrepreneurs would boast of having engraved the entire New Testament on the head of a pin. Now, with "The Gospel of John," a film has been made that puts every word of that narrative on the screen. Whatever else you could say about that pin, it certainly took up less space.

Clocking in at three hours and not a minute less, "The Gospel of John" was produced by Visual Bible International as the first of a series of films that plan to put all of the American Bible Society's colloquially translated Good News Bible onto the screen book by book.

As such, this film was intended to go straight to video, but in part because Mel Gibson's eternally unseen movie of the Passion stirred up so much publicity, it's been released theatrically, with traditionally religious Southern cities given the first look before it opened in Los Angeles and New York.

Both of those distribution plans turn out to reflect the reality of "The Gospel of John": Though it has loftier aims, it is in reality strictly a film made by believers for believers. It's like the Discovery Channel version of the Greatest Story Ever Told, an earnest, not particularly distinguished piece of work that has none of the touch of the poet that made Pasolini's "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" such a triumph.

Directed by the veteran Philip Saville from a script by John Goldsmith, "The Gospel" is richly narrated by Christopher Plummer and features British actor Henry Ian Cusick as Jesus. His Christ is more the sensitive hippie with a light in his eyes than the mercurial revolutionary of the Pasolini film, but the performance does gain in interest as hour follows hour follows hour.

Because of its mandate, "The Gospel" has to show us, albeit in not very involving fashion, all the book's miraculous events, from meeting the Samaritan woman at the well to turning the water into wine at the wedding in Cana to walking on water and raising Lazarus.

It also shows us a Jesus who was frustrated because, despite all the miracles and wonders he performed, even his disciples did not completely believe in him. This at least is potentially quite dramatic material, but the lumbering nature of director Saville's style keeps our interest at a minimum.

As a message on the screen informs us at the film's opening, the Gospel of John placed Jesus very much in the context of the Jewish world of the time. "All his early followers were Jewish," we're told, and in fact in the sequence where Jesus gathers his disciples, one of them is shown putting on the phylacteries worn by observant Jews during morning prayers.

Other Jews were more troublesome, which is not surprising given what the film tells us upfront about the antagonism between the emerging Christian church and the Jewish establishment that was a factor both during Jesus' life and at the time John was writing his Gospel.

What this translates into is a whole series of Jewish officials and religious authorities who are presented as irked at, troubled by, even downright hostile to Jesus. At best obtuse and narrow-minded, at worst scheming and conniving, they make plans for him to be eliminated and, in a key scene with the Roman leader Pontius Pilate, they shout vocally for his crucifixion.

Clearly conscious that all this might be a problem, "John's" filmmakers put together what the press material calls "a highly esteemed Theological and Advisory Committee," ecumenical in nature, that vetted everything for accuracy down to the colors used for costumes. But even though the film's creators are not anti-Semitic, it's also clear that those who are will have no problem with a film that shows -- with the impact that only full color and widescreen can give -- that the Jews were intimately responsible for the death of Christ.

While the filmmakers would no doubt say that John's message must be read in the context of the ongoing struggle for worshipers between these two religions, it's equally true that this film needs to be seen in the context of the explosive times in which it was produced.


'The Gospel of John'

MPAA rating: PG-13, for violence involving the Crucifixion

Times guidelines: Intense religious material

Henry Ian Cusick...Jesus

Christopher Plummer...Narrator

Daniel Kash...Peter

Richard Lintern...Leading Pharisee

Stephen Russell...Pilate

A Visual Bible International presentation in association with Garth H. Drabinsky and Joel B. Michaels, released by THINKFilm. Director Philip Saville. Producers Garth H. Drabinsky, Chris Chrisafis. Executive producers Sandy Pearl, Joel B. Michaels, Myron I. Gottlieb, Martin Katz. Screenplay John Goldsmith. Cinematographer Miroslaw Baszak. Editor Michel Archand. Costumes Debra Hanson. Music Jeff Danna. Production design Don Taylor. Running time: 3 hours.

In limited release.

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