Watching The Gospel of John was quite a unique experience since it was based, as the title says, on the New Testament book, The Gospel according to John. And on it only—no adlib—and John’s is not the easiest Gospel to understand, to say the least. It is a Gospel characterized by sublime discourses by Jesus Christ and contains very few action-scenes, or so I thought.
The actors’ interpretation is arresting. Perhaps it is to the film’s advantage that it carries no famous actors, except for Christopher Plummer, who, as narrator, is never seen. The viewers therefore are not distracted by Hollywood faces. But more than this, the movie’s little-known actors just have to be credited for their natural delivery. It makes the film viewer see them as truly the characters they play, especially in the case of Jesus and Peter.
The narration too was superb. You do not think of Christopher Plummer at all. You find this wonderful story being told you personally, like you were beside the narrator following Jesus as he went to the Jordan River, to Galilee, to Bethany where the innocent Mary cries to him because her brother Lazarus died, and on to Jerusalem.
The situational context of Jesus’ discourses was supplied imaginatively. You would think, yes, he must have said those words in that way, in that place, to those people. It was very real. Scene transitions were very effective in making the film move, especially in Jesus’ discourse at the last supper on unity with him and love for one another. It is really quite a long discourse in the Gospel and it was wonderful to see how the film showed him and the apostles moving progressively from the room of the last supper until they reach the garden where finally, he was to going to be arrested.
Even more amazing, when I refer to the Gospel to check if something was really said in such a way, or if something was actually stated by the Gospel to have taken place that way—because, at some points I would kind of doubt, not having imagined it that way myself—it was so! One example of this is when he was telling the Jews that his flesh was the bread of life: there was no mistaking what he meant as he was literally striking his chest with the palms of both hands as he said, "whoever eats this bread will live forever". My little sense of imagination did not quite capture before what the movie showed me to have been there in the Gospel all the time.
One of the reviews the film received said it was bold. I agree. It dared to mount a whole film using a screenplay that had as the only source for the narration and dialogue the Gospel of John; and it came out naturally and truthfully. You appreciate it more especially in this time when movie adaptations of books are usually no more than making use of the book’s title or the name of its main character; or, worse, movie renderings of real life stories that actually show more fiction than truth.
The film was moving and not melodramatic. It obviously avoided making use of elaborate visual effects or overly dramatic musical scoring to depict incredible miracles of Christ or the tortures he underwent. And again, this is so true of the Gospel of John. John’s complement the Synoptic Gospels' account and that is why it does not tell many of the things already mentioned in the latter.
The representation of Jesus’ own passion was simple compared to Mel Gibson’s vividly graphic The Passion. (This is not to criticize the movie The Passion. I love it, in fact, and watch it every year as I wrote in http://mafaldaspeaks.blogspot.com/2008/03/passion-revisited-some-lenten_13.html) And this is another detail that makes the film The Gospel of John remarkable: by being sober in its treatment of the passion episode, it actually keeps faithful to the text it claims to follow. Furthermore, it implies an invitation to watch the other film because they become like complementary pieces to the same great story.
This may sound like a raving review of this film—well, it is. At the same time, though, I am aware of its flaws, for it has them. It’s not surprising since, realistically speaking, there has yet to be a truly perfect movie in terms of content and technique. This is why I prefer to comment on them in a succeeding part. It is always a pity when a good work is rejected and set aside simply because what were noticed first were the mistakes.
I guess the best thing about The Gospel of John is that it makes you want to read the Gospel of John. But this time, more identified with it, and with the eagerness to read it many more times over because the desire has been awakened to discover too those beautiful details of the last three years of Jesus’ life; and, above all, to see for oneself his hidden mirth as he related with each individual or with the crowd. It was actually a mirth that was not quite as hidden, as it would often surface with a smile playing on his lips.
“The Gospel of John” was directed by Philip Saville and released by Visual Bible International in 2003.