A host of Jesus films focus specifically on the titular character. The ways in which they do so, however, differ drastically. Emphasizing different gospel narratives, showing or avoiding miracles, casting, location…all of these choices affect the cinematic interpretation of Jesus. Other films focus on supporting characters in the Jesus story and feature Jesus as a supporting cast member, to a greater or lesser degree. These films often explore and develop these characters, ranging from the apostles to Barabbas, and the effect their encounters with Jesus have on them. One more recent example is Judas (2004), a made-for-TV movie that premiered on ABC.Directed by Charles Robert Carner, who most recently brought you Witless Protection, Judas presents the title character (played by Johnathon Schaech) as a son of Jewish revolutionary who wants to walk in his father’s footsteps and sees Jesus (Johnathan Scarfe) as a means to overthrow Roman and corrupt Jewish rule. The film opens as Judas’ father is crucified with hundreds of other criminals. This opening scene might be the film’s greatest asset and reveals the enormity of the practice of crucifixion, beginning to get at what theologian Jurgen Moltmann refers to as the countless crosses on the horizon of history.
Cut to an adult Judas, now selling wine in Jerusalem. Word has spread about this man Jesus who Judas and the audience first sees raving mad clearing out the money lenders in the temple. Judas, impressed with Jesus’ angry actions invites him to his house for a meal and to try to recruit him into his movement. Jesus, unfortunately for Judas, admits to having lost his temper. Jesus’ peaceful way will continually confound Judas’ attempts at violent or aggressive revolution.
As the film progresses, Judas joins up with Jesus and his disciples, much to some of the disciples’ dismay. Few of them trust Judas, especially when Jesus entrusts him with their finances, what precious little they do have. When Jesus finally reveals his path to the disciples…that he must be given over to death…Judas actually accuses him of betrayal, an ironic accusation to be sure given our knowledge of the Jesus narrative. Judas does quickly betray Jesus. Another strong point in this film might be the scenes of Judas following this betrayal. Judas realizes what he has done and, wracked with guilt, tries to rescue Jesus or at least convince the authorities to release him. All his efforts fail as Jesus is crucified, and Judas hangs himself.
Judas suffers from an occasionally laughable script and consistently shallow acting. Moreover, the use of strong British accents for the disciples and American accents for Jesus and Judas is just simply confusing. So is the Anglo-Saxon casting of Jesus who looks just like previous blond-haired-blue-eyed cinematic iterations. The made-for-television breaks make for some awkward sequences and representations of gospel narratives. On the other hand, like many contemporary religious films, Judas exhibits decent production values that are unfortunately overshadowed by these shortcomings.
Ironically, it seems that filmmakers who approach this scriptural subject matter with severe reverence often produce films that are campy and somewhat irreverent. When asked what his favorite Jesus film is, Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan confessed The Life of Brian because the filmmakers approached the subject matter with a heavy dose of humor. Though Judas‘ filmmakers probably did not intend this, there are several scenes in the film that are downright hilarious. Any scene in which Pontius Pilate (Tim Matheson) and Claudia (Fiona Glascott) embrace one another is something straight out of day-time soap opera love scenes. Judas’ desire to charge for miracles would be even funnier if it was not simply a tool with which to further demonize the betrayer. When Jesus grants his disciples the power to perform miracles, the resulting shots look like something straight out of a high school football pre-game inspirational speech. The Last Supper looks like it takes place at a disco club, and when Jesus is taken from the cross, a rain storm seems to wash away all of his wounds (quite a departure from Mel Gibson’s irreparable torture).
All these embarrassing negatives aside, Judas does offer some worthwhile elements for discussion. The opening crucifixion scene, as mentioned earlier, along with the filmmakers’ sympathy for Judas after he betrays Jesus, are the main highlights. Judas also presents gospel narratives as interesting possibilities, setting interesting scenes for some of Jesus’ speeches. A major issue that “Jesus filmmakers” must confront is how or whether or not they will show Jesus’ miracles. In Judas, the filmmakers avoid financial and special effects difficulties by cutting away or changing camera angles just as or as Jesus performs the miracles. Here, the supporting characters talk about Jesus’ miracles rather than letting us see them. Thankfully, the filmmakers remain consistent here in their refusal to fully portray them. Jesus has a few throw away lines that are good for a bit of intentional comic relief. When he tells Judas to take care of their finances, he says, “I’m no good with money. Whatever I have, I tend to lose.”
It is easy to be highly critical of Jesus movies, and we should be. We should also recognizes that they are extremely difficult to make. Working with four separate accounts and within or across a variety of religious beliefs and traditions makes this one of the most difficult cinematic genres to “get right.” Accusations of money-making about with regards to contemporary religious cinema, especially from me. However, I do not get the sense that this is happening here with Judas. That being said, I wish the filmmakers would have used that sincerity for better casting, a voice coach, and a more firm script.