Religion

COMING TO A SCREEN NEAR YOU—J.C.

An illustrious cast and crew bring the story of Jesus to sumptuous life

SHANDA DEZIEL April 21 2003
Religion

COMING TO A SCREEN NEAR YOU—J.C.

An illustrious cast and crew bring the story of Jesus to sumptuous life

SHANDA DEZIEL April 21 2003

COMING TO A SCREEN NEAR YOU—J.C.

Religion

SHANDA DEZIEL

An illustrious cast and crew bring the story of Jesus to sumptuous life

JERUSALEM is sitting on the shores of Lake Ontario. The city’s temple, the Gihon Spring and the Roman praetorium (common hall) are all there, within the walls of a Toronto warehouse. The city’s inhabitants are there too. Apostles, peasants, money-changers and Romans mill about, complete with robes, sandals and pre-modern hygiene. And they all seem to be waiting for someone. Then, from a nearby trailer with the initials J.C. printed on the door, emerges Jesus—that is, Jesus as played by British actor and Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Henry Ian Cusick.

It was the last week of March, and the cast and crew of The Gospel of John, a Canada-U.K. co-production, were in the final days of shooting. They’d been working for four months in Spain and Toronto to recreate the book of John in painstaking detailfloors were decorated with mosaics appropriate to the period of the New Testament, and the costumes used only fabrics of the era. During filming, a panel of expert academic advisers were on hand to ensure authenticity and deal with big and small questions such as: was Jesus’s last supper a Passover meal? what was Lazarus’s social status? did people clap to show appreciation back then? what kind of door locks and keys did they use? “If they made a Christian theme park, this is what it would look like,” says Daniel Kash, the Toronto actor playing Peter. “We were in the boat when Jesus walks on water, and it was a stormy night, and they were pouring water on our heads. We said, ‘If this was a theme park, this would be the ride.’ ”

Most other films about the life of Jesus, like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ or Mel Gibson’s upcoming The Passion—a recounting of Jesus’s final hours— amalgamate the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But The Gospel of John strictly adheres to just one account. Peter Richardson, a retired University of Toronto professor of theology and chair of the movie’s advisory committee, says that mixing up material from different gospels is the usual ap-

proach because it gives filmmakers more leeway with the story. “So, we don’t insert ourselves into the film quite as much as I suspect Mel Gibson will.”

The Gospel of John is funded by Visual Bible, a Toronto media company that plans to film every book of the Old and New Testaments. Each film will have a limited theatrical release and then be widely distributed on DVD and marketed as an educational resource for Christians. It certainly doesn’t seem the kind of project that would attract top talent. But the sumptuous production values—it’ll look more like Gladiator than BBC Shakespeare—as well as the big plans of creative consultant (and former theatre impresario) Garth Drabinsky, who’s talked of opening John in IMAX theatres, have drawn an impressive cast and crew. Most of the principal actors come from the Royal Shakespeare Company or the Stratford Festival. Director Philip Saville (Metroland) is a British film, stage and TV veteran who helmed a BBC production of Hamlet

with Christopher Plummer 39 years ago.

Still, it’ll take nothing short of a miracle to make this strict word-for-word adaptation into an entertaining drama. And a lot of the pressure falls on the smouldering Cusick, 34, as Jesus. “Henry is quite remarkable,” says director Saville. “He somehow embodies the gravitas, simplicity and charm of Jesus, as well as the ability to make human contact without coming over as a raving, anarchic communist. And women will like him.”

Kash, 43, praises Cusick for creating a strong dynamic with the men playing the apostles. The Canadian actor was so moved by the experience that he told the producers he’s up for playing Peter in the other gospels. Or better yet, he says, if they’re going to film all the books, he’d like to be Noah or Moses. “I learned so much about the Bible,” he notes. “Previous to this, my whole real knowledge of Christianity was Jesus Christ Superstar. Trust me, that goes a long way.” But a boat ride with Jesus on a Toronto set goes quite a bit further. PI