"It's All Judas' Fault" is equal parts jailhouse jukebox and religious riff.

It takes a confident helmer thinking outside the box to come up with a prison-set musical where docu-style talking heads alternate with inmates workshopping an all-dancing, all-singing reinterpretation of the Crucifixion. But Davide Ferrario just about succeeds. Brimming with unforced energy and plenty of humor, “It’s All Judas’ Fault” is equal parts jailhouse jukebox and religious riff. If the fictional characters lack dimension, the real prisoners taking part provide grit. Quirky balance pleased Italo crix, but the April 10 release hasn’t found a footing with local auds; offshore Italo fests will be more welcoming.

Multitasking Ferrario (“After Midnight”) worked with Turin’s prison population before, so he understands the tricky alliances needed to establish trust. His goal here isn’t merely to present a kind of “Godspell” in the Big House, but to question the heart of Christian teaching by offering a version of Jesus’ story without the Betrayal, and therefore without the Passion. In essence, he’s challenging the concept of salvation as a doctrine possible only through a traitor’s kiss.

Young theater director Irena (Kasia Smutniak) comes to a Turin prison with the blessing of inhouse priest Father Iridio (Gianluca Gobbi) to develop a performance piece with the convicts. Mistakenly believing she’ll be allowed independence, she has to fight the disapproval of jail head Libero (Fabio Troiano) and then Father Iridio himself when the actor-wannabe priest forces her to tackle Jesus’ Passion as her subject.

Irena hits a brick wall when none of the prisoners will play Judas. So she develops another idea: present the Jesus story but without a traitor, and without the sacrifice. Now Father Iridio and straightlaced nun Sister Bonaria (a delicious guest role for comedienne Luciana Littizzetto) try to block the performance, though Irena’s new intimate relationship with Libero means she has a powerful ally.

Ferrario revels in mixing styles, including a brief B&W animated segment and full-scale musical numbers set against docu-style footage. Pic’s biggest problem is integrating the weak backstory of Irena and Libero with the reality of the men’s lives in the slammer.

Thankfully, Ferrario doesn’t try to present the jailbirds as Fred Astaires, and their moves have an unapologetic, winning stiffness. The best number is the first, when a bad poem recited by Irena’s Zen’d-out b.f., Cristiano (Cristiano Godano, lead singer of the band Marlene Kuntz), segues to the inmates singing the same lines as they exit their cells in synchronized movement.

Ferrario’s ear for transforming noise into tunes — clanging pipes, tape-dispenser rips — adds a joyful, toe-tapping quality. Songs and lyrics propel the ideas forward even more than the dialogue.

Lead thesp Smutniak (“Quiet Chaos”) has a young Nastassja Kinski-like presence, without the remoteness, that’s utterly likable. Her high-profile role in the upcoming Lionsgate release “From Paris With Love” could catapult her to Hollywood. Here she mixes comfortably with the nonpros, the latter providing a weightier counterpoint to the plot’s weaker elements.

Given the restrictions of shooting in prison, Ferrario and d.p. Dante Cecchin went with the sharp digital flexibility of a Genesis Panavision camera — first used on “Superman Returns,” and here for the first time on an Italian production. Results are especially good in the musical numbers.

It's All Judas' Fault

Italy

Production

A Warner Bros. Italia release of a Warner Bros. Pictures, Rossofuoco presentation of a Rossofuoco production, in collaboration with Fargofilm. Produced by Davide Ferrario. Executive producer, Ladislao Zanini. Directed, written by Davide Ferrario.

Crew

Camera (color, DV-to-35mm), Dante Cecchin; editor, Claudio Cormio; music, Marlene Kuntz, Francesco Signa, Fabio Barovero; production designer, Francesca Bocca; costume designer, Paola Ronco; sound (Dolby Digital), Vito Martinelli; choreographer, Laura Mazza; animation, Andrea Mastrovito; assistant director, Barbara Daniele. Reviewed at Cinema Quattro Fontane, Rome, April 16, 2009. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Kasia Smutniak, Fabio Troiano, Gianluca Gobbi, Luciana Littizzetto, Cristiano Godano, Francesco Signa, Paolo Ciarchi, Linda Messerklinger, Angela Vuolo, Christian Konabite, Valentina Taricco, Kaas, Ladislao Zanini, Dante Cecchin, Michele Telesca, Sergio Settimo, Enzo Cardinale, Marco Trovato, Francesco Trovato, Marco De Marchi, Giuseppe Ruggiero, Salvatore Canni.

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