THE GOSPEL OF JOHN may not have the spectacle of Nicholas Ray’s KING OF KINGS, but it also lacks that film’s terminally bland Jesus. Nor does it boast the art direction of Franco Zeffirelli’s exquisite JESUS OF NAZARETH, but Henry Ian Cusick as GOSPEL’s Jesus is seems more of this world than Robert Powell, though both give equally moving performances. While Powell already seemed to be in the world to come he promised his followers, Cusick is most definitely in and possibly of this world. Though a wonderful performance, it’s in a film that probably won’t be a crossover hit in the secular world. This is a sermon and the audience is most definitely the choir.
The script is word for word the entire eponymous Gospel as translated in the Am
Director Philip Saville slips in a few slick camera moves, but for the most part, chooses a straightforward approach to the well-known stories of resurrections, loaves and fishes, and walking on water. And while this isn’t an effects film, that last is done credibly is unremarkably. Not included are the more gory parts of the story, the flagellation and nailings take place off camera, though there are plenty of shots showing pierced wrists and flowing blood. It comes across as being in the tradition of the Medieval Mystery plays, a simple story, simply told and relying on that to get the point across.
Saville also takes care to set the story firmly within the Jewish world of that time. Nathanial, for example, is shown strapping on his ritual tefillin while praying. As for the other characters, Peter comes across as a bit of a blockhead while Pontius Pilate is shown in a surprisingly sympathetic light. I couldn’t help noticing that the high priest who is the most rabid to have Jesus killed was distinctly more swarthy than his fellow Pharisees, and as for the text itself that has the Jews egging Pilate on, well, it is what it is. And that would be less than philo-semetic. John’s gospel, and hence the film, does not dwell on the political and religious infighting among the different Judaic sects of the time who were all struggling with Roman oppression of their homeland. As the Romans of the time would have said, “Pace.”
And here we come to the heart of the problem with THE GOSPEL OF JOHN. There is no doubt in my mind that it is intended as an earnest effort to render the biblical story. There is even an introduction that attempts to place the story in the political context of the time it was written, rather than in the time in which it took place, That was a time when Christianity was trying to separate itself completely from Judaism, rather than being regarded by the outside world, as well as some within its ranks, as just another more or less peculiar splinter sect of the Hebrew religion. It does little, though, to take the edge off the view that the Jewish establishment of the time was more than just a little complicit in the crucifixion, and it is that view, read out during Easter week in the Middle Ages and later, that inspired the faithful to march into ghettos and shtetls and slaughter as many Jews as they could find in revenge for the crime of deicide.
The irony for me comes in the very first words spoken by Plummer and a motif that recurs throughout the gospel. These are the verses that discuss those that seek the light and those that seek the darkness, and how those two concepts, the light and the dark are forever in conflict. Among others, the Essene sect of Judaism, which was active at that time of the events of THE GOSPEL OF JOHN used that imagery in their texts excavated as the Dead Sea Scrolls in the last century. So did the Zoraostrians, one of the other great monotheistic religions, also contemporaneous with Jesus, taught the same thing. What to make of a borrowed idea used to create such divisiveness? Perhaps as an object lesson. But not, in the final analysis, a night at the movies.