Tony Goldwyn as Jesus? Giancarlo Giannini as the Pope? What’s going on here? What’s going on is, of course, another “faith-based” drama of the sort that gets booked directly into theaters without benefit of a traditional releasing company (though Paramount is somehow involved with this one). These films usually aren’t very good, and tend to range between the preachy conversion efforts of the Billy Graham-produced The Climb to the Omen-esque Son o’ Satan silliness of Megiddo. It’s a pleasure, then, to report that Joshua comes as a sort of blessed relief from the usual fare. Sure, it plays like a TV movie, the soundtrack is needlessly littered with the standard-issue Christian “rock” songs, and the director is recruited from the ranks of exploitation movies (why this seems to be axiomatic in films of this type is a question worthy of some exploration). On the other hand, Joshua boasts an unusually solid cast of professional actors, and the script manages to be inspirational without resorting to shameless religiosity. Tony Goldwyn, who normally plays the slimiest of villains, is interestingly cast against type as the mysterious Joshua, who turns out to be a somewhat grander figure. F. Murray Abraham is humorous, treacherous, and finally moving as the haughty priest, Fr. Tardone. Granted, Giancarlo Giannini makes a pretty improbable pontiff, but he handles the role with a good deal of dignity. In fact, it’s the dignity of the acting that truly lifts Joshua above the usual. Solid production values (beautiful production design by legendary set designer Brian Eatwell and naturalistic cinematography by Bruce Surtees) help, too. Based on a “best-selling” (not sure on whose best-seller list, but that’s the claim) novel (apparently one of a series, though I’m hard-pressed to imagine just where the concept could go — Joshua Goes to the Seaside, Joshua’s Big Day?), the screenplay treads pretty familiar territory. An oddly mystical stranger, Joshua (Goldwyn), arrives in a picture-book small town and has an immediate impact on the populace. The image of the small town is interesting in that its prettiness is merely a facade for its pettiness — it’s almost a kind of Blue Velvet-lite, but with malaise at its core rather than outright corruption. Most people — naturally — fall immediately under his charismatic spell. But some people — equally naturally — are skeptical of his enigmatic goodness. This is especially true of Fr. Tardone, who’s threatened by Joshua’s gifts as a spiritual leader. Nothing too surprising happens, but the film definitely has its moments, and is, interestingly, not afraid to criticize certain aspects of religion in a manner that may not be to everyone’s tastes. At one point, Joshua intrudes on a faith healer’s tent revival, only to be told, “We’re praying here,” to which Joshua says, “No, you’re not,” and proceeds to actually heal a blind woman. Another person objects to a young man’s rock-concert approach to religion as having nothing to do with church, and to this, Joshua merely comments, “One man’s concert is another man’s sermon.” Within these limits, Joshua is mildly adventurous. And some of the sequences are actually quite effectively done and moving, even while flirting perilously with cliches. The film’s greatest weakness lies in its too-quaint notion of modern life. The entire town seems to be comprised of believers of one sort or another (there’s not a secular humanist in sight), and Joshua’s miracles, even more miraculously, do not result in an immediate media circus. But all in all, it’s a remarkably sober, intelligent little movie. The film might well have worked better had it stuck a little closer to the novel’s purely allegorical concept, which reportedly never directly tells the reader that Joshua is Jesus Christ. The film leaves no room for doubt on this point and becomes alarmingly literal by the ending. Still, it’s an entertaining, effective, sincere movie with a worthwhile message or two that doesn’t depend on whether or not the viewer accepts its religious content at face value.
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