Saturday, January 31, 2004

Review of The Gospel of John

There's far too much around about The Passion of the Christ at the moment, especially for a film that hasn't been released yet, so it's nice to see a really glowing review of The Gospel of John on the National Review Online:

The Word, According to John
A Gospel on the silver screen.
By S. T. Karnick

The article has a useful run-through various Biblical epics and then talks about The Gospel of John which the author clearly loved:
Given the amount of talk involved, even for a three-hour film, one might expect The Gospel of John to come off as somewhat static and preachy, but it is not so at all. Saville uses a wide variety of cinematic techniques to keep things interesting. The camera moves about constantly, prowling through streets and passages, panning about, and shifting from one character to another, to give the viewer something interesting to look at while Plummer narrates. The visual tableaux are often quite beautiful, especially in the use of contrasts between light and shadow, but never in a way that distracts the audience from the story. In addition, the producers took great care to make the settings and costumes look as true to the time as possible, giving the film a new and interesting look. Even the soundtrack reflects this care, as the arranger included authentic recreations of instruments of the time.

In addition, Saville evoked an excellent performance from Henry Ian Cusick as Jesus Christ. Cusick presents the Christ as significantly more cheerful and self-assured than most such depictions have been. He smiles easily and often, and has a pleasant but strong demeanor and can be quite determined when that is appropriate. This makes his Christ rather less enigmatic than is usual for a screen depiction of Jesus, and it does not in any way decrease our reverence for him — the main point of John's Gospel, after all, is Christ's divinity. Given that emphasis, Cusick's and Saville's choice to show Jesus as a person who enjoys life and particularly enjoys serving God, his Father, in addition to being supernaturally wise, temperate, loving, and courageous, is exactly right . . . . .

. . . . . the film takes on the style of an A&E biographical documentary: A narrator tells the story, and actors clad in period costume reenact the events in settings as realistic as the producers can afford (which in this case, as mentioned earlier, are very persuasive indeed). The camera moves about the settings while Plummer articulates the Gospel text, just as the shot in a TV documentary pans across a still photo to create some sense of movement while the narrator describes the events it shows. Black-and-white flashbacks are also used to good effect here, tying the narrative strands together visually as Plummer recites the text.
Good analogy -- it does have that feel. I haven't finished watching yet, but at this stage I'm a little less enthusiastic about Christopher Plummer's narration which is surprisingly wooden and sometimes intrusive. I'd have liked to have seen more imaginative use sometimes of the ambiguities over narration / dialogue / monologue in the film, e.g. as soon as the narrative reaches John 3.16, Christopher Plummer's narration comes muscling in with "For God so loved the world . . ." And elsewhere Plummer gives us the crowd's thoughts rather than the words being put in the mouths of members of the crowd. But these are niggles; it's a joyous outing so far (I'm up to Chapter 8 now). I agree with Karnick about the flow of the narrative, the use of black-and-white flash backs and so on.

Karnick comments that in Cecil B. de Mille's The King of Kings (1927), one can actually see what Jesus writes in the ground in the story of the woman taken in adultery in John 8. Since I don't have a copy of the film (I should get one), I don't know what he writes. Does anyone happen to know? Are there any other Jesus films where we can see what Jesus writes? I can't think of any. He doesn't write at all in this scene in Last Temptation. In The Gospel of John it's not easy to see what he is writing -- it looks like some kind of symbol.

Another review from a week ago from The Wichita Eagle:

'Gospel' brings the Bible to life

Interesting conclusion -- something I'd been thinking about:
The film is fortunate in its casting, which borrows mostly from British television and theater. Daniel Kash is an impetuous Simon Peter, Stuart Bunce an observant John, Scott Handy a wild-eyed yet tender John the Baptist.

Yet this lily-white casting is also the main awkward element. Brown, black and olive-skinned extras abound, yet all Christ's close friends are Caucasians. In a movie that strives for fidelity to the story from which it springs, couldn't we have more honesty about the people who lived 2,000 years ago in the Middle East?

No comments: