Paulist Productions finished filming its low budget TV movies, “Judas” over three years ago. It finally sees the light of day as an ABC movie special on March 8th. Executive Producer Father Frank Desiderio wouldn’t hazard a guess as to why ABC decided on this particular date, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure the powers that be at ABC are hearing the cha-ching at the theatre and want to cash in on “The Passion” phenomenon.
Of course one could be charitable and admit that this is Lent, and of course a major network would want to honor the season by presenting a sensitive religious film. But that would be just stupid. In the same vane, Bravo is showing the near blasphemous Scorsese flick, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and they are making no bones about the reason why.
But Judas is neither “The Passion of the Christ” nor “The Last Temptation of Christ.” It has neither the star power nor the budget (“Judas” was made for under $5 million) to compete with either. Instead, it is exactly what it purports to be – a modest, TV movie.
Written & produced by television veteran Tom Fontana (Homicide: Life on the Streets; Oz) and directed by Charles Carner (Who Killed Atlanta’s Children), “Judas” is loosely based on the New Testament scriptures and mixed liberally with speculation. It attempts to explain what would cause a man who had walked with Jesus for three years to betray him for a handful of silver.
The film has an authentic look, yet much of the dialogue comes across as contemporary, even hip. The effect is at time disconcerting, but Father Desiderio insists that was the effect they were going for. At times the production takes on the aspect of an old Hollywood western complete with the good guy (Jesus) in white and the bad guy (Judas) in black. And nowhere is that motif more obvious than when Jesus heals the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath.
“That was intentional,” Desiderio says. “It’s almost a “High Noon” scenario. Jesus crosses a dusty road to confront Caiaphas. He heals the man’s hand and then walks off into the sunset.”
“Judas” begins and ends with a crucifixion scene. The opening shot reveals Judas’ father, a zealot rebel, being crucified for insurrection, as the boy Judas watches in horror. As the camera pulls back, we see that Judas’ father is but one of hundreds who have been executed that day. The final scene ends with Christ’s crucifixion followed by Judas’ suicide. Fellow disciples Peter, James, and Andrew, cut his body down and pray the Jewish prayer for the dead.
That is perhaps the most important part of the film, according to Desiderio. “That’s the whole point of the film,” he says. “It’s never too late. That’s the message. We are all Judas, one way or another. We have all betrayed Christ. His message to us is, “It’s never too late to repent.”
One perplexing decision Desiderio made was to cast agnostic Jonathan Scarfe (ER) in the role of Jesus. “He is a marvelous actor, and he had the look we wanted,” Desiderio said in defense of that decision. “I told him, ‘let every action you take be dictated by love,’ and I think he delivered beautifully.”
Another troubling aspect of the film is that it ends with the death of Judas rather than the resurrection of Jesus. It is a conundrum that Desiderio acknowledges.
“Ultimately this was a movie about Judas,” he explains. “So it is appropriate that it end with his death. But we tried to interject some symbolism to acknowledge the resurrection. In the scene where Caiaphas is complaining about the writing “King of the Jews,” and Pilate tells him, ‘After today we’ll never hear the name Jesus, again,’ there is a peacock, which is an ancient symbol of the resurrection, in the courtyard. When the disciples are praying for Judas there is Jesus voice over proclaiming, ‘It’s never too late.’ The song at the end, which is sung in Latin, is a song about the resurrection.'”
“Judas” was the final project of late Rev. Ellwood “Bud” Kieser for Paulist Production.