Thursday, November 13, 2003

Combining art with evangelism used to be easier, a no-brainer. There was the Church. There was Michelangelo. Bada-bing, bada-boom.

Somewhere along the way, the twain stopped meeting. The split probably had something to do with the European revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, along with the literary investigations of the Bible — so-called higher criticism — that followed in their aftermath.

At some point religion came to be identified by artists — painters, poets, novelists — with the ancien regime, with old superstitions. In the 20th century, T.S. Eliot and Evelyn Waugh clung to traditional belief to the point of crotchety antimodernism, but they were a rare breed.

Here in America, especially, there is a fervently held but historically unfounded assumption that artistic endeavors must always be independent from both church and state. Exceptions are made when the state offers cash, but that’s another story.

Hollywood used to produce great religious movies, such as Cecil B. DeMille’s successive “Ten Commandments,” for the glory of art, if not of God. But by the time of director Franco Zeffirelli’s masterful TV miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth” (1977), Hollywood had pretty much exhausted the biblical epic.

A controversial exception in recent decades was Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” a mystical, humanistic adaptation of a novel that used Jesus as a metaphor for the human condition. Looking back, the movie seems more like a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph: a piece of art in search of a scandal.

There’s no reason to settle for this and, lately, things are looking up — no thanks to a Hollywood that isn’t nearly as brave as it fancies itself.

Like the conservative talk-radio movement that flourished as a much-in-demand alternative to the liberal media establishment, those looking for religious movies that reflect their faiths have decided simply to make them on their own.

This year, a Lutheran financial services organization saw through a decent biopic of Martin Luther, and Mel Gibson has reportedly spent millions from his own pocket to haul “The Passion” to big screens by Easter next year.

Now, Visual Bible International, a faith-based company in Toronto, is distributing “The Gospel of John,” the first in what it promises will be a series of literal screen adaptations of every book of the Bible, based on the American Bible Society’s “Good News” translation.

Even though its purported aim is to educate and evangelize, the movie will have religious doubters tut-tutting from the word go. A text crawl at the beginning says John’s account was written circa A.D. 60, whereas liberal scholars peg it to the year 90 or later. These skeptics question, too, whether the disciple was its actual author.

Sourcing and dating aside, the choice of John itself courts controversy: It’s the gospel least trusted by liberal Christians and most offensive to Jews.

Simply from a storytelling perspective, John unquestionably is the hardest to adapt. The synoptic gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke — are written in a traditional narrative mold. Mark in particular reads punchy and fast, like newspaper copy.

John, though, is treacherous terrain for moviemaking; in its mystical, Hellenist flavor, it’s denser and murkier than its cousins.

Directed by a veteran British filmmaker, Philip Saville, “John” tries gamely but ultimately never overcomes the problems inherent in its source material.

The film boasts a talented cast, led by the classical British actor Henry Ian Cusick as Jesus. Its external set pieces, filmed in the Spanish desert, are often breathtaking, and Debra Hanson’s costume design is sharply detailed.

But the movie is needlessly long, and the screenplay is repetitive. Count how many times Mr. Cusick’s Jesus intones, “I’m telling you the truth.”

“John” spends so much clunky time in verbatim fidelity to text that it buzzes past big moments — the crucifixion, for one — as if all incidents in the book are dramatically equal.

Mr. Cusick brings an easy humanity to the character of Jesus, but one tic really bugged me. It was a smugness, a smirk: Nearly every time Jesus explains something complex to either his disciples or interested bystanders that they don’t understand right away, Mr. Cusick gives a quick little nod-and-smile, as if to say, “Oh, you poor, ignorant mortal.”

I doubt Jesus was like that. And when the “Good News” translation of John has Jesus say things such as “In a little while you will not see me any more, then a little while later you will see me,” I think I can relate to their puzzlement.

The narrative voice-over by Christopher Plummer (who played Herod in the Zeffirelli “Jesus”) was supposed to push things along. All it did was snarl an already plodding pace.

At times, Mr. Plummer pipes in to announce what’s about to happen before the action unscrolls. Why not just let the dramatization speak for itself?

Still, for its first time out of the box, Visual Bible has made a solidly professional movie.

Will it anger Jews? Maybe, maybe not. It hasn’t so far.

In a role called “Leading Pharisee,” Richard Lintern is a dark, intimidating villain. Yet the movie also makes a point of noting that crucifixion was a Roman, not a Jewish, punishment.

Will it please believing Christians? Without a doubt.

I have no idea how Visual Bible will turn, say, Proverbs or the love poem that is the Song of Songs into movies, but I look forward to what it produces next.

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