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Some lessons from 'John'

Crucifixion film using Gospel text generates far less controversy than Gibson's 'Passion.'

September 05, 2003|Richard N. Ostling | Associated Press

TORONTO — Mel Gibson take note: There's another new film about the life of Jesus that also depicts Jews' involvement in the events leading to the Crucifixion. But this one has several Jewish producers and has attracted much less controversy.

While Gibson's "The Passion" won't be released for months, Jewish and Christian commentators already are debating whether its gory treatment of Jesus' death will rouse anti-Semitism. By contrast, there's no advance acrimony surrounding "The Gospel of John," which premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival on a symbolically chosen Sept. 11.

"John" is a Canadian-British production made for $15 million, roughly half the cost of Gibson's film. It opens in four U.S. markets Sept. 26, then 75 others through the autumn, mostly in cinemas across the southeastern Bible Belt.

Gibson's movie, which he funded, co-wrote, produced and directed, puts all the dialogue into the ancient Aramaic and Latin languages. "John" has a different oddity. The script is in English but consists entirely of John's Gospel, word for word.

Yet that verbal straitjacket doesn't sap the drama and sometimes enhances it, creating thought-provoking entertainment.

Still, thanks to Gibson's film, many will be less curious about whether "John" is a good show than how it treats 1st century Jews. Answer: Just the way John's Gospel does, which raises age-old issues of fairness and literary intent.

Garth Drabinsky, the Canadian producer who heavily shaped "John," is Jewish. He thinks John's Gospel, which most scholars believe was written around the end of the 1st century, is an inspirational masterpiece in which one of the themes is the conflict over Jesus among Jews.

The John film "will illuminate understanding of both religions and make a stronger Christian-Jewish relationship," declares Drabinsky, a colorful impresario who is fighting U.S. and Canadian fraud charges in an unrelated matter. (That case stems from the 1998 bankruptcy of Livent, a firm he co-founded, that turned out a string of hit Broadway shows.)

In making the film, Drabinsky hired University of Toronto retiree Peter Richardson to enlist an advisory board of scholars consisting of five Protestants of varying views, a Roman Catholic sister and two Jews.

One of the Jewish scholars, Alan Segal of Barnard College, told a Toronto media preview audience that "it's a stunning and illuminating film." But Segal also said that, of the four Gospels, John is "the most Jewish in its subject matter and the most anti-Jewish in its perception."

John emphasizes Jesus' own claims to be the Messiah and the son of God, which sets up a sharp conflict among Jews. By John's account, the temple authorities plotted early on to kill Jesus and pressed a hesitant Pilate to give the go-ahead for crucifixion.

The scholars give words of explanation that scroll down the screen before the action begins, noting that crucifixion was a Roman punishment not sanctioned by Jewish law and that Jesus and his early followers were Jewish.

The scholars' words also tell viewers that John was written "two generations after the Crucifixion" and reflects a period of growing friction between early Christians -- who were living within Jewish communities -- and Jewish leaders.

That view follows the widespread scholarly opinion that John expresses the era when it was written as much as, or more than, what actually happened during Jesus' lifetime.

Liberals will like that spin, but conservatives triumph in the film's final seconds, when visual twists underscore the Gospel's assertion that it relied on an unnamed eyewitness (not necessarily John the apostle) to offer a true account of Jesus' life.

In another filmmaking choice that will reduce Jewish objections, the scholars decided the script should use the American Bible Society's 1966 Good News Bible.

They say the reason was the accessible language, but it's also significant that, in the original Greek, John used Ioudaioi ("the Jews") 67 times, suggesting collective Jewish involvement in opposing Jesus. The Good News Bible translates the word as "the Jewish authorities," thereby avoiding the idea that all Jews conspired against Jesus. Some academics have said it's wrong to change John's wording for the sake of political correctness.

Segal and others think that seeing the whole story of Jesus will feel less harsh than Gibson's passion play. And, they say, "John" is not a debatable Hollywood reinterpretation but an exact biblical record.

"John" comes from Visual Bible International, a Toronto-based, loosely Christian company that previously issued low budget, word-for-word versions of the Gospel of Matthew and Acts for church and home video markets.

Two years ago, Visual Bible enlisted Drabinsky, who helped raise money for the film and assembled a seasoned showbiz team, including director Philip Saville and screenwriter John Goldsmith.

The cast consists of 75 British and Canadian stage actors, but two men carry the three-hour film. The little-known Henry Ian Cusick portrays Jesus as more relaxed and less grave than many who have taken on the role, and veteran Christopher Plummer is narrator.

The film crew isn't done with the subject. Two days after the Toronto premiere, Drabinsky's team will assemble to mull a draft script for its next word-for-word biblical flick, "The Gospel of Mark."

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