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THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHN

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An unabridged adaptation of a book of the Bible is a daunting prospect under any circumstances. But Philip Saville's "faithful" rendition of the fourth gospel practically disappears in its own chapter-by-chapter, verse-by-verse fidelity. The problem isn't the three-hour running time so much as the filmmakers' tendency to display as little imagination as they seem to expect from the viewer: The wall-to-wall narration by Christopher Plummer (who basically reads the text of the "Good News Bible," minus dialogue) tells you not only things you could easily infer from what's onscreen ("he was deeply moved") but also things you are literally witnessing ("the people again picked up stones to throw at him"). All this -- combined with the bloodless modernized prose -- makes you feel you're an especially dense 8-year-old deep in overtime at Sunday school. Henry Ian Cusick plays Jesus with conviction, but the film's ponderous style (cheesy "epic" music accompanies the clearing of the temple) doesn't allow him much personality. Compared to "unfaithful" Jesus films such as The Last Temptation of Christ and Jesus of Montreal, this one falls flat, and it's made more vexing by the choice of source material: John stands alone among the four gospels in equating "the Jews" (here called "the Jewish authorities") with the enemies of Jesus, and the film seems so bent on vilifying the scowling and swarthy Pharisees -- who do everything but twirl their mustaches -- that other messages tend to suffer. One and a half

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