Spotlight: The Gospel of John

The method of Philip Saville's The Gospel of John defies ordinary film criticism and indeed ordinary movie viewing. Dialogue and narration have been taken, verbatim and without omission or interpolation, from the American Bible Society's Good News translation of the fourth Gospel. Dramatically, this approach necessarily comes with certain trade-offs and limitations — but, as an artistic meditation on sacred Scripture, it represents a unique and worthwhile opportunity to experience the word of God in a new way.

The third production of a Toronto-based outfit called Visual Bible International, the three-hour Gospel of John has a number of strengths, including solid production values, strong acting, professional directing by Saville and engaging narration by Christopher Plummer.

Working with an advisory committee of scholars representing Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths and bringing expertise in Scripture studies, theology and archaeology, the filmmakers strove for accuracy in every aspect of the production. Though modestly budgeted, The Gospel of John looks remarkably authentic, from the meticulously researched costumes and artifacts to the exterior locations in southern Spain. Even the effective score incorporates instruments and musical textures from Jesus' day.

The challenge of portraying God incarnate has daunted screen actors since the dawn of cinema. Henry Ian Cusick's compelling performance is both warmly human and also authoritative, surprising, even polemical. Cusick's Jesus has the presence and confidence of a popular teacher unafraid to preach the same message to friend and foe, Jew and Roman, and easily transitions from addressing a large crowd to focusing entirely on a single individual.

The film's most pervasive weakness is, alas, the translation that provides the basis for the screenplay: The Good News Bible is neither literal nor literary, precise nor graceful. Still, the gist of John's narrative and presentation of Jesus' teaching remains intact, and the performances and visualizations help bring the sacred text to life. Well mounted and honorably executed, The Gospel of John is the most religiously significant film in years.