Judge Joel Pearce contemplates the true nature of omniscience and Judas Iscariot's role in history.
The ultimate act of betrayal.
I generally try to stay far away from television movies that cover the same ground as a recent major theatrical release. In this case, it's obvious that Judas, which was shelved for a couple years before its release in early 2004, was finally put out in order to cash in on the wild success of The Passion of the Christ. To my surprise, Judas isn't nearly as bad as I expected, though I certainly can't recommend it for purchase.
As expected, this film follows the years of Jesus' ministry through the perspective of Judas (Johnathon Schaech, The Forsaken), portrayed here as a young radical hoping for a revolution against the Roman occupation. When he catches word of a new miracle worker/potential messiah on the scene, he thinks he may have discovered the answer to all the Jews' problems. Judas joins up with Jesus (Jonathan Scarfe) and the disciples, where his own ideals never quite fit in. He tries to persuade the others to find a way convince Jesus to claim his kingship and fight the Romans, but Jesus is more interested in his own agenda of peaceful teaching and performing miracles. Judas is never really able to understand the point of it all, and he eventually becomes disillusioned with this life. It is because of this that he gets caught up in a scheme between Caiaphas (Bob Gunton) and Pilate (Tim Matheson), who are trying to maintain the tenuous peace between the Romans and Jews.
Judas is best described as The Gospel According to Dr. Phil. It is heavily influenced by pop psychology, and tries to explore Judas's own experiences and feeling in order to understand why he would commit his infamous betrayal. Of course, scriptural text doesn't really contain enough information about his life to really build that kind of profile. In order to get around that problem, writer Tom Fontana fell back on a classic scriptwriting technique: he made stuff up. The disclaimer at the beginning of the film reads: "The following film is an interpretative representation of Judas's relationship with Jesus based in part on biblical passages and historical research." That pretty much explains it all. The resulting film is one that obviously means well, but never manages to say anything new or worthwhile.
In fact, most of the problems in the film are with the script, which fails to deliver in a variety of ways. To be fair, it must be really hard to write dialogue from a historical period that is accessible to a contemporary audience but is also rooted in the past. The dialogue in Judas tries so hard to sound comfortable that it becomes completely separated from the tone of the rest of the film. Jesus often sounds like he's being interviewed at Woodstock, and some of the quasi-philosophical jabbering between Jesus and Judas is painfully silly. Even more troublesome are some of the cultural allusions made, such as a reference to the Jews as "peasants," which probably would have been the case if they had been living under the feudal system. Worse still are some of the character choices. Jesus is often written as naï rather than wise, which seems downright wrong. The first time that Judas sees him is as he is tearing down the temple—later Jesus claims that he just lost his temper. Jesus also puts Judas in charge of the finances because he's "no good with money." Sometimes he is easily swayed by Judas and the disciples, giving them the power to perform miracles because Judas thinks they could gain more supporters that way.
Beyond the script, most things are actually handled fairly well. Most of the major performances are decent, with about as much acting chops as you can expect from such an unknown cast. They were following the directions they were given, and delivered the silly lines with as much sincerity as possible. Johnathon Schaech carries the lion's share of the work as Judas, and he does a good job. His decisions seem more feasible than they should based on the script, and it's because he digs into his role with passion and gusto. Because of the performances, there are a number of scenes that are quite powerful, such as some of the miracle scenes and the crucifixion at the end.
Still, there isn't anything in this version of the story that hasn't been handled far better dozens of times. Paramount seems to realize this, as they have released it in a thoroughly dull DVD package. It is presented in 1.33:1, which seems to be the original aspect ratio. At times there seems to be some extra information at the top and bottom of the frame, but I think that may have just been some bad cinematography choices. The transfer is acceptable, though, even though the film has that too clean television look. The colors are accurate, and it's a pleasing film to watch with the exception of several terrible CGI moments. The sound transfer is lackluster as well. It's a generic stereo track that does the job and nothing more. There are no subtitles on the disc at all. There are also no special features, but that's probably an acceptable choice in this case.
I have to admit that Judas is watchable, which is a lot better than I thought I'd be able to say. Really, though, there's nothing in it to make it worth hunting down on DVD. If you are in the mood to see another version of the story and it comes on TV it might be worth checking out, but otherwise I would suggest you seek out one of the many better versions of the story.
Judas is guilty, of course, but I think it was punished enough by spending a couple years on the shelf before shamefully being slipped out on television and DVD.
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