Intriguing if ultimately unsatisfying, Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche’s “Story of Judas” rewards more as a stripped-down (in terms of spectacle and melodrama) portrait of biblical times than it does as an alternative slant on key New Testament elements. Despite its title (and the helmer’s casting himself in that role), the focus is by no means exclusively on Judas Iscariot, with neither his story nor anyone else’s dominating, or emerging with real clarity. This somewhat frustrating take on events leading up to the Crucifixion and its immediate aftermath will simply flummox those expecting a traditional retelling, and its divergent perspective isn’t fully articulated enough to reward those looking for serious theological revisionism. The result is finally just a fairly interesting movie that revisits “the greatest story ever told” with a few new fillips and a lot of unexpected gaps. Beyond continued fest travel, prospects in various formats will be modest.
That story starts here with Judas (Ameur-Zaimeche) carrying “the Galilean” (Nabil Djedouani) on his back from a remote hut, where the weakened man has fasted for 40 days. (“And you’re as heavy as ever,” Judas jests.) He’s joyously welcomed back into the community, though this bemused, gentle savior turns atypically aggressive when confronting a confluence of marketplace and temple. More characteristically, he saves the disgraced Bathsheba (Marie Loustalot) from an angry mob, and calmly accepts an extravagant gift of perfume from another woman (Patricia Malvoison), who bought it at great personal cost as a gesture of devotion.
His public teachings stand in opposition to “madman” Carabas (Mohamed Aroussi), who shouts “Death to the Romans!” and seems to both claim and parody the real prophet-rabbi’s unasked-for mantle as “King of the Jews.” Nevertheless, as Jesus invites trouble by traveling to preach in Jerusalem, he becomes viewed as a political danger by the Roman occupiers. He fails to sufficiently defend himself when politely interrogated by Pontius Pilate (Regis Laroche), sealing his preordained fate–of which we see only the aftermath, as crazed Carabas tears the crosses out of the ground after the bodies of Jesus and others have already been removed.
Here Judas is, if anything, the most dedicated of disciples (the others aren’t granted much screentime or distinguishing personality), as he passionately presses his belief in Jesus’ divine leadership on other Jews. He also protects his mentor to the point of hiring de facto bodyguards, and destroying written records that a young scribe has made in secret of the prophet’s words — for fear those parchments could be used as evidence of agitation against Caesar’s rule. This Judas Iscariot is no betrayer; nor does he take his life out of guilt. Ameur-Zaimeche’s interpretation of the figure falls somewhat in line with recent shifts in theological thought, as filtered through his own idiosyncratic viewpoint.
The filmmaker (who wrote and directed “Smugglers’ Songs” and “Adhen”) makes eccentric alterations and omissions that lend “Story of Judas” an air of adventuresome promise. Yet no clear revisionist thesis emerges beyond recasting the titular figure in a far more sympathetic light. Even on that level, the film is something of a letdown: It doesn’t focus on Judas, or Jesus for that matter, enough to provide a strong, fully dimensionalized character center. In the end, “Story of Judas” feels like a series of footnotes to an absent principal text, interesting but lacking the larger context to be truly meaningful.
Performances are nevertheless committed and credible. Shot in the France-based director’s native Algeria, the film is, in physical terms, a more convincing re-creation of the times than most, never mind that (a few snatches of Arabic aside) everyone here is speaking French. There’s a spare handsomeness to the use of locations, Irina Lubtchansky’s lensing, and other design contributions.