Like any telepic that would attempt to preach to more than the converted, ABC’s version of the relationship between Judas and Jesus has been broadened, fabricated and, in the case of the language, dumbed down for primetime. With Jonathan Scarfe bringing a surfer-boy facade to Jesus and Johnathon Schaech playing a Judas with few blatant misgivings, “Judas” is soulless. Telepic offers little in terms of biblical interpretation beyond a depiction of the days leading to Christ’s crucifixion that differs wildly from that in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”
Budgeted at about $5 million by religious film company Paulist Prods. — and the final project of the late Father Ellwood (Bud) Kieser — “Judas” finished shooting three years ago and has lingered awaiting a network slot. Certainly the presence of Gibson’s film boosted ABC execs’ hopes for the pic; many of the faithful who pushed “Passion’s” B.O. beyond $145 million in its first week will be interested in this benevolent depiction of Christ.
Artistically, however, Tom Fontana’s script is written as if it’s set in 1980, with kings, warriors and disciples using common street lingo. It reaches its nadir when Jesus turns to Judas and says, “Do whatcha need to do, my friend.” Having heard Jesus speak in parables and proverbs yanked from the Bible’s greatest hits, audiences may be stunned to hear Peter, former tax collector Matthew, Pilate, Caiaphas and Claudia speak as if they all hung out on the same stoop.
Judas is a wine peddler living with his mother, though a fervent desire to join an uprising against Caesar has him blind with rage. He hears about a potential messiah and seeks him, becoming instantly sold on Jesus after watching him go berserk in a Jerusalem town square.
As Jesus builds his band of 12 disciples, Judas retains some emotional distance form the others, especially Peter, whom Jesus will make his No. 1 charge. (To indicate that lack of emotional connection, director Charles Robert Carner and d.p. Michael Goi often picture Judas as isolated and away from the group. It never feels quite right.)
Fontana’s script heightens the behind-the-scenes manipulations that lead to the crucifixion, suggesting the Romans conspired to get the Jews to condemn Jesus and then the two sides played a chess match with their actions to avoid a label of guilt. Could it really be true that Pilate (Tim Matheson) made his decision based on a post-coital whim from Claudia (Fiona Glascott)?
Schaech plays Judas as a menacing force, never truly exposing the inner conflicts that the script abundantly suggests he possesses. Scarfe has little majesty or charisma — he shouts the familiar passages and his minions respond like rock concert attendees. It’s difficult to ascertain why he developed a following, and the sudden conversion of Matthew (Paul Haigh) is one of the telepic’s most unconvincing moves.
And one has to ask: Who thought that Matheson could be put in a toga without rekindling “Animal House” memories in a multitude of viewers over the age of 30?
“Judas” has its fair share of mediocre special effects to show Jesus curing people with skin afflictions. The telepic is nowhere near as violent as “The Passion,” and by the time Jesus is walking toward his death, the streams of red on his chest more closely resemble spilled ketchup than blood.