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TELEVISION REVIEW

Grooviest story ever told: 'Judas'

March 08, 2004|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

Now that Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" has made a box office superstar out of Jesus again, ABC is ready to trot out its own potentially divisive version of the events that led to Christ's demise (and rise).

"Judas," which airs tonight, stars Johnathon Schaech as the studliest Judas ever to grace screen, canvas or day-glo figurine, and Jonathan Scarfe as a somewhat unsettling surfer-dude Jesus. If Gibson's take on "The Greatest Story Ever Told" was by far the goriest version ever filmed, then "Judas" is right there with the grooviest. And in a genre that includes a past all-star extravaganza starring Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate, Robert Blake as the apostle Simon and John Wayne as a centurion, that there, friends, is no cakewalk.

Jesus movies have been a staple of Hollywood for as long as movies and Hollywood have been around, and while some have gone over swimmingly with the faithful, others have ignited some serious organized conniptions.

Jean-Luc Godard's "Hail Mary" (1985) and Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988) were vigorously picketed and, at least in some places, threatened with bombs. Kevin Smith's "Dogma" (1999), whose Catholic director maintained it was a devoutly Catholic film, was denounced by the Catholic League and dropped by Miramax. And Monty Python's "Life of Brian" (1979) was banned in parts of the U.K.

"Judas," which is told from the point of view of the apostate Apostle Judas Iscariot, was originally conceived by the late Father Ellwood "Bud" Kieser, who founded Paulist Productions. As a bit of well-intended Christian kitsch, "Judas" is fun to watch (the actors playing disciples John and James do sound like they grew up with Eric Idle, and Tim Matheson, Otter in "Animal House," plays Pontius Pilate -- in a toga.) The network may have been jittery about telling the story from the bad guy's point of view, as writer-producer Tom Fontana ("Homicide: Life on the Streets" and "Oz") suggested in an interview last week. Obviously, its recent big screen antecedent not only helped to ease the way but offered the unique opportunity to catch the crest of all that boffo publicity. Besides, "Judas" handles the blame issue as though it had seen the controversy coming -- by having it fall squarely on Pilate's wife, Claudia, a devious, often nude, minx.

Gibson's decision to shoot "The Passion" in Aramaic and Latin was mocked at first, then praised as one of the smartest choices he made. Whatever else you think of his movie, you have to admire him for noticing that American accents don't really jibe. There are very few things that are funnier than Charlton Heston in sackcloth. Pier Paolo Pasolini, a gay, Marxist, atheist Italian filmmaker, somehow got it right when he depicted Jesus and the people of Judea as peasants, casting only unknowns, and not terribly attractive ones, in the roles. (His Jesus was an economics student from Cataluna.)

"Judas," on the other end of the spectrum, reinterprets the story of the traitorous disciple by giving his tortured soul plenty of psychological back story involving major childhood trauma. It also suggests that his attraction to Jesus may have been more than strictly apostle-messiah. (And not just because of the soul kiss he plants on Jesus toward the end of the movie.) Obviously, it gets into some risky territory, so "Judas" opens with a disclaimer similar to the one used to introduce the story of Jessica Lynch: "The following film is an interpretive dramatization of Judas' relationship with Jesus based in part on biblical passages and historical research."

The movie opens as a young Judas watches the Romans crucify his father. Dad somehow manages to throw the wailing lad a small pouch full of dinars, which the boy then kisses. Small sacks of money, we realize, will become Judas' Rosebud.

Judas blossoms along with his hatred for the Romans, and by the time he grows up to become the hottest guy in Judea, he is a stewing, simmering pot of trouble just waiting to boil over. He is skulking around the temple one day, bored, frustrated, sick of the Romans and a little depressed after enduring yet another round of criticism couched in encouragement from his pushy stage mother of a mom ("Selling wine. It's not worthy of you! You were born for greatness, like your father. He was a visionary. A hero!") when, suddenly, he sees him:

Malibu Jesus.

Judas looks on, misty-eyed, as Jesus upsets the vendors' stands. Then he invites him to lunch. Jesus, as it turns out, not only looks but sounds just like a native Californian. He and Judas' initial conversation recalls a couple of young college roommates meeting each other for the first time.

"And you," Judas asks, "are you from Judea?"

"Originally I was born in Bethlehem," Jesus replies, "but my family is from Nazareth and Galilee."

"Nazareth," cracks big-city Judas, "that's not much of a town."

Later, when Jesus invites him to join him and the boys back in Galilee, Judas shrugs, "I'll pass."

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