Sunday, April 04, 2004

The Gospel of John vs. The Passion of the Christ

The Boston Globe reviews The Gospel of John and compares it with The Passion of the Christ. Would that a few more had attempted this. Although I have been making comparisons off and on in the blog for a while, I think that this is the first time I have seen it done properly in a review. Perhaps most strikingly, the reviewer thinks that The Gospel of John, because of its source material, ends up rather more anti-Semitic than The Passion of the Christ:

'Gospel' aims for that old-time religion, but where's the passion?
By Ty Burr, Globe Staff, 4/2/2004
"The Gospel of John" is to "The Passion of the Christ" as tap water is to parboiled sacramental wine . . . . .

. . . . The sad truth is that director Philip Saville and writer John Goldsmith have made a picture book rather than a film, one that leans so heavily on Christopher Plummer's placid voice-over narration as to be cinematically inert. Peopled with earnest overactors and featuring a Jesus who has the benevolent, unruffled smile of a high school grief counselor, "Gospel" is as dull as the desert sands . . . . .

. . . . . That sense of duty keeps "Gospel" a puppet show, though. The filming has the flat sheen of a telefilm, and the acting rarely rises above the community theater level. The thoughtful elegance of Jeff Danna's score is the movie's subtlest aspect; lead actor Cusick, exuding the animation of a 3-D winking-Jesus postcard, is its biggest missed opportunity . . . . .

. . . . . The differences with "The Passion of the Christ" are instructive, though. "Gospel" errs on the side of gentility, showing us a mere shadow of a whip-wielding centurion and a trickle of blood on the Savior's brow, while its presentation of the crucifixion is more in line with physical probability (Jesus carries only the crossbar of the cross to Golgotha; the nails pierce his wrists rather than his hands). But the film is also more troubling than "Passion" in the unexamined anti-Semitism it takes from its source. On one level, this merely reflects bad acting: As the head Pharisee, Hippola, Richard Lintern literally twirls his mustache in the tradition of Snidely Whiplash. But where Gibson made sure to provide "good Jews" and "bad Jews," Saville gives us all bad Jews all the time. "Gospel" is so removed from ethnological reality that when one of the apostles addresses Jesus as "rabbi," Plummer has to inform us that "this word means `teacher.' "

"Gospel" gets the letter, all right, but not the spirit. "The Passion of the Christ," meanwhile, revels in an amped-up version of Jesus' death. The movie that effectively conveys the passion of the man's life remains to be made.
One or two comments. First, I disagree with this reviewer over Cusick. I think he's excellent. It's a real achievement to make the Johannine Jesus warm, animated and engaging and he manages it. Second, on the issue of the carrying of the cross, The Gospel of John has a liberty that The Passion of the Christ does not -- there is no Simon of Cyrene in John's Gospel so Jesus can be depicted carrying the cross beam like his fellow victims. Third, I am intrigued by the reviewer's comments on the alleged anti-Semitism in The Gospel of John. It seems to me that the film grappled with this issue explicitly in several ways: (1) the pre-publicity for the film often discussed the issue, using the advisory board to comment; (2) the extra features on the DVD similarly attempt to deal with the issue (an opportunity for Icon for their Passion DVD release?); (3) they self-consciously chose the Good News Bible so that they could use the translation "Jewish leaders" rather than "the Jews"; (4) they added a pre-credit statement about when John was written and what it reflected. Given all this, it is interesting to hear that for that reviewer, he still finds it "more troubling than 'Passion'", though I had to look up Snidely Whiplash.

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