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A Religious but Not Preachy 'Joshua'

Billed as a 'spiritual western,' this tale of compassion from a do-gooder stranger avoids cloying overtones.


Director Jon Purdy aptly describes his picture "Joshua" as "a spiritual western, a story about a stranger who comes to a small town and instead of changing their way of thinking with his six-guns, he changes them through a compassion that is revealed to the townspeople." Indeed this gracefully wrought film, beautifully shot by Bruce Surtees with apt production design by Brian Eatwell, has a spirit of uplift that is well-earned.

Tony Goldwyn is Joshua, a tall man with a serene presence who arrives in Auburn, a leafy, 19th century Norman Rockwell town in the Midwest and rents a barn to set up shop as a woodcarver and all-around woodworker (and that's a pretty big clue to his true identity). Joshua is low-key, unpretentious and dedicated to random acts of kindness.

Seeing that the black community's church has been ravaged beyond repair, perhaps by a tornado, he sets about tearing it down and rebuilding it from scratch. It's not long before the entire town has pitched in to help, including the kindly assistant priest, Father Pat (Kurt Fuller), of the local Catholic Church. The townspeople begin realizing that they are experiencing a sense of community as never before. Father Tardone (F. Murray Abraham), Father Pat's superior, even commissions Joshua to sculpt a likeness of St. Peter.

However, Father Tardone, an austere, formal man and a rigid church traditionalist who was more at home in the Vatican, begins looking askance at Joshua, especially when the already enthralled townspeople begin insisting that he possesses miraculous powers.

Adapted from Father Joseph Girzone's novel by screenwriters Brad Mirman and Keith Giglio "Joshua" is a model of how to do a religious film and harks back to the best of Billy Graham's productions. That is to say that preachiness is avoided, the people and their situations are lifelike and leavened with humor, and the filmmaking meets professional standards.

Purdy's direction and the film's script and notable cast make "Joshua" more than that: It's a persuasive spiritual journey, sentimental at times but never hopelessly cloying. It is also fair: As uptight and negative as Father Tardone can be, he is undeniably a conscientious, well-meaning man who is right to be concerned that Joshua may well be some kind of charlatan whose increasing sway over the townspeople alarms him--just as he is ultimately wrong to be so stubbornly close-minded and unloving.

Goldwyn never loses sight of Joshua's humanity or his humility, and therefore never seems an insufferable paragon. Fuller has the film's best role, as a sometimes klutzy and tactless man of God who grows in assurance and poise as he increasingly defies Father Tardone's escalating arbitrariness. Tardone is himself a complex figure, and Abraham illuminates him with compassion. Giancarlo Giannini makes a splendid pope in a sequence filmed in Rome.

The film, however, suffers from the curse of so many films from religiously oriented production companies: a gratuitously gooey violin-and-harmonica score that doggedly underlines most of the action in the most obvious, heavy-handed way.

"Joshua" further suffers from a noisy overlay of Christian rock, a little of which is appropriate but goes a long way; the overdose here seems an overly strenuous bid to appeal to youthful audiences that is at odds with the gentle, lyrical tone the filmmakers have so thoughtfully achieved.

That "Joshua" is not done in by its music, however, attests to its innate strength.

MPAA rating: G (general audiences). Times guidelines: suitable for all ages.


Tony Goldwyn...Joshua

F. Murray Abraham...Father Tardone

Kurt Fuller...Father Pat

Giancarlo Giannini...Pope

An Artisan Entertainment release of a Crusader Entertainment presentation of an Epiphany Films production. Director Jon Purdy. Producers Paul Pompian, Howard Baldwin, Karen Baldwin. Screenplay Brad Mirman and Keith Giglio; based on the novel by Father Joseph Girzone. Cinematographer Bruce Surtees. Editor Richard Nord. Music Michael W. Smith. Music supervisor Dondi Bastone. Costumes Susan Kaufmann. Production designer Brian Eatwell. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

At selected theaters.

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