24 January 2004 | livewire-6
In the beginning was the Word
There are four gospels in the New Testament. Matthew, Mark and Luke are referred to as the `synoptic' gospels. They see Jesus `with the same eye'. Their `eyewitness accounts' are remarkably alike. John is startlingly different in its details, style and tone -- so much so, that this gospel almost didn't make it into the accepted canon of New Testament books.
`The Gospel of John' purports to be a faithful retelling of the fourth gospel. It employs every single word of the text, as rendered by the Good News Bible translation. The film combines dialogue with narration by veteran actor Christopher Plummer. The result is an understandably wordy script. One of my friends used the term `verbose'.
Was it wise or foolish to adopt this approach? That depends on your point of view. It means that the actor playing Jesus must deliver lengthy speeches, especially Jesus' farewell after the Last Supper. This runs the risk of being a deadly bore in cinematic terms. I must confess, I kept nodding off during this segment of the film. To his credit, the director tries to compensate by cutting away to a montage of black-and-white flashback images suggested by Jesus' words. This gives the audience a much-needed visual breather.
On the other hand, and this is a good thing, using the integral text of John's gospel obliges us truly to listen -- to hear the Word. I lost track of how often Jesus said, `I am telling you the truth.' Some might find this annoyingly repetitive. But it certainly hammers home the theme of John's gospel. As if in counterpoint to Pilate's cynical barb, `What is truth?' we have Jesus' ringing declaration, `I am the Truth!' (This is often obscured by older translations, such as `Amen, amen, I say to you'.)
I found `The Gospel of John' highly instructive, not just for what it says, but what is does not say. I realized, for the first time, why John recounts events absent from Matthew, Mark and Luke, while ignoring those familiar to us from their accounts. It struck me that the author of the fourth gospel assumes we are already conversant with all this material. For instance, John does not describe the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, yet abounds in references to bread and wine. Again, John does not tell us what became of John the Baptist (he was beheaded by Herod) or Judas the traitor (he hanged himself). John takes it for granted that we know.
I also realized how often Jesus says, `I am who I am' (three times) and finally, `Before Abraham was, I am.' Jesus applies to Himself the phrase used by Yahweh in the Old Testament as His name. In other words, in John's gospel, Jesus clearly equates Himself with God (`The Father and I are one').
As represented in this film, Jesus is thoroughly human in that He suffers and dies. Yet He also radiates the power of divinity -- not so much in the form of miracles, as in a sense of righteousness, a certainty about His mission. Even Jesus' outrage at the commercialization of Temple worship seems more like the fulmination of an exasperated Old Testament God. We do not see Jesus tempted by Satan or agonizing in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus knows exactly who He is and what He is doing, even though His followers may not.
The real `stars' of the film are Jesus' opponents, `the Jewish authorities' (Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes) and their hapless instrument, Pontius Pilate. The apostles, on the other hand, are curiously lifeless in this film rendering of John's gospel. Even Judas is given little in the way of motivation. John's explanation is that he was a thief who pilfered the apostles' common purse and sold His master out of simple greed. This explanation may have been enough for the evangelist, but it is far from satisfying in literary or cinematic terms.
The film portrays Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a woman of mature years. Her visual representation comes as something of a shock, compared to Olivia Hussey's incarnation of the Virgin in `Jesus of Nazareth'. I was reminded of Michelangelo's Pietà. Someone pointed out to the sculptor that the mother looked strangely younger than the son. Michelangelo replied that, since the Virgin had been pure and sinless, he could not imagine her aging and decaying. Jesus' mother in `The Gospel of John' thus runs counter to a certain iconographic tradition.
The other women in this film, as in John's gospel, get short shrift. We barely get any sense of Mary Magdalen, or Mary and Martha of Bethany. The most fully developed female character is the Samaritan at the well, played by an actress whose face and voice deliver exactly the right note of hard-bitten cynicism. One only wishes she were not so wild-eyed once she realizes she is speaking to the promised Messiah.
The same excessive theatricality is found in John the Baptist, Nathanael (whom Jesus saw beneath the fig tree before meeting him) and doubting Thomas (whose exclamation, `My Lord and my God!' rings hollow).
A film such as `The Gospel of John' cannot be judged entirely according to the usual canons of cinematic art. In other words, we cannot judge `The Gospel of John' simply on the basis of artistic merit or entertainment value. Ultimately, we must ask: Is the film theologically sound? Does it succeed in conveying the gospel message? How do we, the audience, respond to that message and especially the messenger, Jesus Himself?
In the final analysis -- and this is a question all filmgoers must answer for themselves -- would we heed the Jesus of `The Gospel of John' when He invites us to `Follow me'?