The Gospel of John
Reviewed by: Eric S. Weiss
Adults and older children
2 hr. 59 min.
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Starring: Christopher Plummer, Henry Ian Cusick | Directed by: Philip Saville | Produced by: Garth H. Drabinsky | Written by: John Goldsmith | Distributor: Visual Bible International
Here’s what the distributor says about their film: “An ambitious motion picture that has been adapted for the screen on a word for word basis from the American Bible Society’s Good News Bible. The story of Jesus’ life as recounted by His disciple John, this three-hour epic feature film draws its audience into antiquity by way of meticulous recreation, including an original musical score complete with instrumental sounds of the time. This ambitious motion picture follows the Gospel precisely, neither adding to the story from other Gospels, nor omitting complex passages.”
Wow! Go see it. See it twice. Tell your friends to see it. This movie both raises and sets the bar for religious films. Cusick’s is the greatest film portrayal of the Jesus Christ of the Gospels ever, and reason alone to see this movie. However, the entire movie is excellent as well, especially considering the strictures the filmmakers set for themselves (i.e., to adhere to a faithful and complete word-for-word rendition of The Gospel of John). It is a great movie, and truly gives audiences the best version so far of “the greatest story ever told.”
Henry Ian Cusick’s Jesus sets a new standard. Forget Robert Powell in JESUS OF NAZARETH. Indeed, forget every other movie Jesus you have seen. Cusick has given us a Jesus Christ that is the most intensely human-divine characterization of Jesus yet portrayed on screen. Cusick is so good that he makes weaker characters (like some of the disciples) look bad, even though they’re not really bad, and his performance in my opinion makes up for any shortcomings the film may have. Pilate is quite good, too, as is the character identified in the credits as the “Leading Pharisee.” But Cusick… He steals the movie.
“The Gospel of John” (in both written form and in this film version) pulls no punches in making Jesus Himself the issue. Cusick does not portray Him as a dreamy, melancholy, sometimes other-worldly character like Robert Powell in JESUS OF NAZARETH, or as a “revolutionary,” or as one who is confused about His mission, like Jeremy Sisto in the CBS JESUS movie, or as a reverent but not-quite-real person like Max von Sydow in THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD. This Jesus—just like John’s Jesus—KNOWS who He is, and He KNOWS where and who He comes from, and He KNOWS who His Father is, and He KNOWS where He’s going, and He KNOWS that those who are opposing Him are blind and liars and hypocrites and do not love God. And He says all these things.
C.S. Lewis, I believe, wrote in his book MERE CHRISTIANITY what was later developed into the so-called “trilemma” (popularized by Christian apologist Josh McDowell), which basically states that a man who said the things Jesus said and did the things Jesus did (assuming the Gospel accounts are accurate) would be either a liar, a lunatic or… the Lord He claimed to be. Cusick’s and John’s Jesus is exactly that. His portrayal comes across as Him being either the brashest, most self-assured megalomaniac—or The Son of Man/Son of God/Messiah He repeatedly declares Himself to be.
John’s Gospel is probably heavier on dialogue and leaner on action when compared to the Synoptic Gospels, but this movie never suffers from that, largely due, I think, to Cusick’s spirited performance and the filmmakers’ inventive staging and filming. Even when there is a lull in the action, Cusick’s Jesus keeps you riveted to His every word, and the authenticity of the sets and costumes and scenes has you looking at every detail. The filming is never static or stagy, and it continually drives the movie forward. The camera work is as “contemporary” as the latest Hollywood movie, and never seems gimmicky.
Some people view John as the “most spiritual” of the Gospels. One view goes, I think, that Matthew shows Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, Mark as the Servant of YHWH, Luke as the Savior to the Gentiles and the Son of Man(kind), and John gives us Jesus as the Divine Son of God. Some say “John” (the author’s name is known only by tradition; the Gospel has no name attached to it) wrote his Gospel as an old man, after a lifetime of theological reflection on “The Word” that had become flesh.
Some say that John at times gives us what Jesus “means,” rather than what He says or does (which may explain some of his apparent discrepancies with the Synoptic Gospels). For those who have a perception that John’s Gospel gives us a Jesus who is wholly or largely focused on the realm from which He came, this movie may come as a shock, for it shows that John’s Jesus is a very earthly/earthy/fleshly/real Jesus. He may have one foot in Heaven, but His other foot is firmly planted on the earth, and Cusick never diminishes the humanness of Jesus in this film.
Most people probably don’t realize how un-supernatural the post-resurrection Jesus in John’s Gospel is. Cusick and this film portray this perfectly. I suspect that’s partly why a reviewer for The Dallas Morning News thought the post-resurrection scenes were anti-climactic.
In every way, this film is many cuts above The Visual Bible’s two previous efforts, “MATTHEW” and “ACTS”. Having seen these two previous films , my expectations for this movie were not very high. My reaction/response to this film: I was blown away. This movie both raises and sets the bar for religious films. I do not think I am wrong to say that this is the greatest film portrayal of the Jesus Christ of the Gospels produced so far, and the greatest film rendition of a Biblical book ever made.
This movie is word-for-word (except for the “he said,” “they said,” etc. for spoken dialogue) from The Gospel of John, per the Good News Bible (GNB—American Bible Society), also published as Good News for Modern Man or Today’s English Version (TEV). Yet this film does so much more than other movies that have tried to merely follow the Biblical text (e.g., the Campus Crusade for Christ JESUS film with Brian Deacon). The film never totally becomes a drama, because Christopher Plummer’s narration of the non-speaking parts of John accompanies the whole movie, so you’re constantly reminded that someone is reading or showing you a story.
This isn’t a movie like KING OF KINGS (my favorite “Jesus” movie—until this one) that is a drama based on the Gospels. This is The Gospel of John, every word, every incident, in the exact order of the book, no words added, no words subtracted (except for the aforementioned “he said,” “they said,” etc.). Even the parts that one might think would make for awkward filming are done well.
The sets and costumes and actors look and seem very authentic (except for the British accents). The Jewish leaders in this film are dark in dress and somewhat ominous, especially the very prominent character identified in the end credits only as the “Leading Pharisee.” (The dark clothing, however, was likely necessitated by the desire for historical authenticity, and the film is scrupulous in this regard.) The blood from Jesus’ scourging unfortunately looks fake, like they poured or streaked blood-colored syrup on His chest and back. In my opinion, they should have done a better job with His wounds and blood. There are no welts, no skin tears, just blood streaks.
The scenes (both landscape and close up) of things like Jerusalem and the Temple look very good—not like cheap sets or obvious and cheap CGI. Also, at the Passover/Last Supper, when Jesus is outside with His disciples, the moon is full—which is how it would be at 14-15 Nisan, when Passover occurs. Reading the credits shows that the authenticity of this film extended to the instruments and the music.
Violence: Mild | Profanity: None | Sex/Nudity: NoneYear of Release—2003