October 30th, 2003

Saffron Cake

Go. See. NOW.

I took the evening off and drove out to our nearest Mega-Cinema-plex thingmy to see The Gospel of John last night. And I'm so glad I did, because it was just... wow.

I feel sorry that more people didn't know about this film before it came out, and that even now that it's in wide release across North America, hardly anybody seems to have heard about it. But it's still out there if you want to see it on the big screen. And I would heartily recommend that you do. Or at least see the DVD/video when it becomes available.

Beautifully filmed and acted, with real reverence and attention to detail -- this is the LOTR of Biblical films, only more so. Not that it's full of eye-popping special effects, or anything of that sort; the filmmakers were smart enough not to load the film down with those kinds of distractions, and when they show supernatural or miraculous elements it's done without glitz or fanfare. No, it's just a faithful, comprehensive, high-quality dramatization of John's gospel. And even though the film clocks in at just under three hours, it never drags.

Christopher Plummer's superb narration helps a lot, to be sure. It's difficult to complain about having the gospel of John read to you in its entirety, word for word, when a voice like that is doing the reading. Jeff Danna's gorgeous, haunting score enhances the story's drama. And when the film is further enhanced by an absolutely brilliant performance by Henry Ian Cusick in the central role... well.

A movie like this really stands or falls on the portrayal of Jesus Christ, and until now I'd really never seen a film that I thought did Him justice. Many times He comes across as a remote, otherworldly figure, blandly serene and detached from the rest of humanity -- an insipid sort of God and an even less attractive Man. Or, as in some more recent films, speculation and conjecture have run rampant and presented us with a Christ plagued by self-doubt and buffeted by myriad temptations -- not Godly at all. In both cases it's difficult to imagine what the disciples see in this Jesus person, or to understand how His message could turn the first-century world upside-down and resonate across the centuries to touch millions of people.

Not so with this film. Cusick's portrayal is nothing short of amazing* -- he makes Christ's every word ring with such conviction and authority that you can completely understand the temple guards' testimony that "No one ever spoke like this man," and yet in his face-to-face conversations with His disciples and others there is such a wealth of compassion and sympathy and understanding that you can readily see why so many people loved Him. This Jesus's emotions are real, not contrived; His answers are thoughtful, never pat; and yet He knows beyond a shadow of a doubt who He is and what He has come to do. This is the Jesus I recognize from reading the gospels, and it's a real thrill to see the Biblical account of His life and words taken seriously.

For me, the most moving part of the film was the death and resurrection of Lazarus -- the grief of Mary and Martha, and of Jesus Himself, is so deep and real that I was sniffing and blinking back tears of my own. But I also chuckled at several points -- most notably the bit where the Chief Pharisee is lambasting the temple guards; all it took was a flicker of the chief guard's eye and one quick shot of an innocent-looking Nicodemus, and I started giggling. You'll understand why if you see it.

To avoid accusations of anti-semitism similar to those being levelled at Mel Gibson's upcoming film The Passion of Christ, The Gospel of John takes care to present its message without giving needless offense. Right from the beginning of the film it's emphasized that Christ and all His disciples were Jewish, and that the religious leaders, not the general populace, were the ones who opposed Jesus and sought His death -- a death which could not have been effected without the involvement and cooperation of the Roman authorities as well. That information is already there in the text of John's gospel, so the emphasis is not unwarranted, and goes a long way toward defusing controversy.

Anyway, I could go on in this vein all day, but it boils down to this: The Gospel of John is really good, and a considerable number of reviewers, even secular ones, appear to agree. So if you're even just a little bit interested, and you've got the chance, it's worth seeing. Really.

* I do have one misgiving, however. This would be it. Isaiah prophesied of the Messiah that "There was no beauty in him that we should desire him," and the gospels likewise give no indication that anyone was drawn to Christ on account of his appearance. But Henry Ian Cusick's Jesus is distractingly good-looking and buff, and it's hard to concentrate on deep theological insights when you are suppressing a mad urge to wibble.

8:03 p.m. -- Edited to correct the implication that Gibson's Passion of Christ is demonstrably anti-semitic -- further reading, including a number of reviews written by Jewish commentators who have seen a rough cut of the film, seems to indicate that this is not the case.