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In the beginning was the word

The Gospel of John (PG-13) (180 min.) _ The road to heaven also can be paved with good intentions: Witness this verse-by-verse enactment of the greatest story ever retold. Using the American Bible Society's verbally streamlined Good News Bible, screenwriter John Goldsmith and director Philip Saville turn the screen into a pulpit with better production values and performances than Christian cinema usually possesses.

The story has been familiar since Sunday school, with Jesus of Nazareth (Henry Ian Cusick) fulfilling his duties as an earthly extension of the Almighty until and beyond crucifixion. All of Jesus' greatest-hit miracles are here: turning water into wine, healing the lame, raising Lazarus from the dead and then doing the same himself. The same ground was covered in 1960s biblical epics, then reinvented by Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell in the 1970s and revised (some say blasphemed) still later by The Last Temptation of Christ. But this version is closest to the source, painstakingly so at times.

The sets and costumes are top-notch. The performances _ especially Cusick's impressive common-man approach to the role of Jesus _ are superb, although most roles are woefully uninformed by John's writings. The limitations of literature nearly 2,000 years old occasionally make for lackluster cinema, turning the filmmakers' dedication to John's words into something of an alibi for the slow parts and sketchy characterizations.

It's a bold experiment paying off, judging by the box office results for The Gospel of John during its limited release. Nobody expects a blockbuster, not in this age of innocence lost, but the movie is drawing its targeted audience. It's good enough to deserve wider exposure than that.

One nagging thought remains. With Mel Gibson's film The Passion infuriating some people before it even opens because it reportedly blames Jews for Jesus' death, one wonders after similar depictions in The Gospel of John why the same complaints haven't been lodged. There is no doubt that in this version Pharisees (corrupt Jewish temple leaders), feeling threatened by Jesus' popularity, pushed the Romans toward crucifying Jesus. Pontius Pilate (Stephen Russell) concedes under Pharisee pressure.

Maybe Gibson's popularity is a lightning rod. Certainly his affiliation with a Catholic order considered by many Jews to be antagonistic to them fuels the controversy. But art should be a free expression, no matter who's doing it. B+

_ STEVE PERSALL, Times film critic

The girls can't help it

Girls Will be Girls (R) (79 min.) _ Richard Day's campy drag comedy returns after a well-received screening at last month's Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Call it Charles Busch Lite; less filling and less bad taste.

Like Busch's farces, the underlying joke is that these feminine cartoons are being played with impressive credibility by men. Jack Plotnick leads the way as Evie, an aging B (or maybe C) movie queen whose beauty now consists of false teeth, a wig and a glass eye that shifts out of place sometimes. Her middle-age roommate, Coco (Clinton Leupp), is having motherhood pangs but the love of her life, a doctor who performed abortions, is a distant memory. They open their apartment to Varla (Jeffery Roberson), a pudgy, aspiring starlet eating her way to the top.

Some Valley of the Dolls-style sniping brews among the roommates while each pursues her dreams. Oversexed Evie plans a comeback, Coco is reunited with her doctor beau, now a slug specializing in morphine-induced rape, and Varla turns tricks for a hygienically challenged bogus movie producer. Every line is a setup or punchline, every sight gag has some sexual basis in a movie smart enough to call it quits after less than 79 minutes.

Without the drag subtext, this movie would be a forgettable spoof of backstage melodrama. Cross-dressing lends a certain degree of parody that fills in whatever laughs Day's screenplay can't muster. Girls won't always be girls in gay cinema, and that's good enough for a lark. B-

_ S.P.