Word for word, The Gospel of John has premiere at Toronto Film Festival
TORONTO (CP) – The Gospel of John, the fourth book in the New Testament, is the first feature film from Visual Bible International, a faith-based company that hopes to make word-for-word films of all 66 books in the Bible.
Premiering Thursday, Sept. 11, at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Canada/U.K. co-production, was produced by Garth Drabinsky for Visual Bible and is narrated by actor Christopher Plummer. British Shakespearean actor Henry Ian Cusick plays Jesus.
Plummer, in Toronto for the festival, said he thought the film was “a fascinating thing to do. And I love the text of the Bible, even the new version. Though I’m more used to the King James.”
He also loves the result, he said. “I thought it was so beautifully and simply done, and so tough and honest and simple. And not at all pious in any way.
“I was privileged to do the narration for it.”
Unfortunately, he said, Jesus’ messages in John of “love thy neighbour are rather redundant these days when evil seems to be the order of the day.
“But somebody will listen.”
John, written by an unknown author late in the 1st century CE, is not so much a retelling of the story of the Jewish Jesus and his Jewish disciples, as it is spreading the word. Jesus is less human, more mystical, more divine. He has become the Messiah, the Son of God. And he has a prophesy to fulfil; he has to die.
He and the disciples are Jewish but Jesus speaks in parables and metaphor infused with Greek philosophy, which would have been understood by early Christians who were not Jewish.
At a press screening of the three-hour film, Drabinsky, whose production credits include Ragtime, Kiss of the Spider Woman and a revival of Showboat, said he was invited by Visual Bible in July 2001 to be a creative consultant for the film, “a project that became more profound after 9-11.”
“The Gospel of John is an ideal choice for the first production of Visual Bible. The ideals, philosophy and landscape are as meaningful today as they were 2,000 years ago.”
He conceded, however, that he had never done anything like this before and that for someone more learned in Torah, “John was virgin territory.”
Drabinsky later said he has now studied John for the better part of a year and a half.
“I know the script inside out,” he said from his Toronto office. “I found it illuminating and enriching at the same time.”
But taking that script and making it into a movie for a 21st century audience presented a challenge. Which translation? How to handle the anti-Jewish aspects of the book?
Drabinsky turned to a committee of academics, both Christian and Jewish, for help.
The American Bible Society’s Good News Bible was the translation chosen because the language was the most accessible to both actors and the audience.
And committee member Peter Robinson, professor emeritus in Christian origins in the religious studies department at the University of Toronto, said the “ABS translation tries to reduce misunderstandings in the text.”
“It differentiates between Jews, Judeans and Jewish authorities.”
He said at the time John was written, Judaism was split – Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots. It was a polemical time and John is a polemical book.
In the film, with a cast that looks more Mediterranean than northern European, the adversaries are the Pharisees, referred to throughout as the “Jewish authorities.”
With Mel Gibson’s crucifixion film, The Passion, drawing flak from Jewish and mainstream Christian groups, Drabinsky and the committee are aware that Jesus’ execution is a touchy subject, even at the remove of some 2,000 years.
Drabinsky said in the film the Pharisees “come across clearly as the aggressor in defence of their fundamental Orthodox religious beliefs.”
“Remember it’s Jew unto Jew dealing with the issues and the challenge so rudimentary to the entire religious Orthodox sect of Judaism that you had that powerful reaction.”
And for the crowd which yells “crucify him,” Drabinsky said, “We didn’t bring in 3,000 extras, no throng of bloodthirstiness. It was contained.”
As New Testament commentaries point out, few Judeans would have known of this itinerant rabbi or have been present at his execution by the Romans.
Drabinsky, whose next projects with Visual Bible are Mark, then Samuel 1 and 2, said the film doesn’t shy away from the trial, the flogging or the crucifixion.
“It’s there,” he said. (But) “we have gone in every respect very, very carefully and methodically to deal with the issues.”
And the film, shot in Spain and Toronto for about $20 million with a cast of Canadian and British stage actors, opens with a scrolling script describing some of the historical context, the religious conflicts, crucifixion as a Roman method of execution. Not, however, the influence of Greek philosophy on the Gospel’s author.
After the Toronto premiere, the Gospel of John goes into limited release in U.S. Bible Belt states such as Kansas, Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia and Texas, an observation that makes Drabinsky a little prickly.
He says the film “will play to a lot more than born-again Christians, a lot more than Southern Baptists and a lot more than evangelicals. It’s going far deeper than that.
“If handled properly this movie should last for generations.”