Mel Gibson wasn’t the first Catholic filmmaker who offered Jim Caviezel the chance to play Jesus.
Fr. Frank Desiderio, president of Paulist Productions, asked Caviezel years ago if he was interested in playing Jesus in a made-for-TV movie — one that would be told from the point of view of the man who betrayed him, Judas Iscariot.
"We offered the Jesus role to Jim Caviezel," Fr. Frank confirmed. "But he didn’t want to do a TV movie — he wanted to do a feature."
Now Judas, written by screenwriter Tom Fontana (The Fourth Wise Man) and directed by Charlie Carner (Christmas Rush), is premiering on ABC, less than two weeks after The Passion of the Christ shattered box-office records and Hollywood expectations. Fr. Frank hopes that heightened public awareness of the story of Jesus will help Judas reach a wide and interested audience.
Judas isn’t aimed at preaching to the choir. "ABC generally draws a younger audience, one that may not go to church," notes Fr. Frank. "We wanted to make Jesus approachable for modern teenagers."
This "approachable" Jesus turned out to be Canadian actor Jonathan Scarfe, whose credits include a string of appearances on "ER." The film’s real star, though, is Johnathon Schaech, who plays Judas.
"We found Johnathon Schaech first," comments Fr. Frank. "He was the first actor cast. He had the brooding intensity, he was absolutely committed to doing it — and he’s a faithful Catholic. He had to carry the film."
Director Carner agrees. "Johnathon Schaech is very handsome, intense, he has a powerful presence as an actor. He brings a lot to the party. What we liked about Jonathan Scarfe is that his energy as an actor is completely different. He projects a warmth and joy that’s very important to the part. He’s a great contrast to Johnathon Schaech, who has a brooding intensity and a driven quality that creates tension in every scene. He portrays someone filled with anxiety and fear and anger — as opposed to Jesus, who is filled with the Spirit of God and love."
As Jesus, Scarfe certainly has the approachable quality the filmmakers were looking for. Much like Jeremy Sisto in the 1999 TV movie Jesus, Scarfe brings a lively, disarmingly playful presence to the role, if one rather lacking in authority and gravitas. Scarfe’s Jesus can joke and horseplay with his apostles, but it’s hard to imagine him thundering against the Pharisees or delivering Jesus’ stark ultimatums about eating and drinking his flesh and blood.
But Carner, a devout Catholic, sees the film’s interpretation as fundamentally traditional and orthodox. "At first I was worried that it would turn out to be a neo-modernist revisionist look at Jesus," he explains. "But I liked that the script, although conversational, treats Jesus in a traditional way. I liked the fact that Jesus was presented in a very straightforward way… It brought humanity to Jesus without lessening his divinity."
In particular, Carner points to two facts. First, unlike some previous films that depict Jesus experiencing doubts or lack of understanding about his own divine identity and mission (e.g., The Last Temptation of Christ), the Jesus of Judas always displays confidence and certainty about who he is and what he’s come to do.
Second, where some interpretations of Jesus’ life reduce or eliminate the element of the miraculous, Judas portrays the miracles of Jesus, from healings to walking on water to raising the dead, in unambiguously supernatural terms.
One unexpectedly humorous scene highlights the theological meaning of the miracles as divine actions rather than magical displays. After Jesus has given his disciples authority to perform miracles, Judas tries as hard as he can to raise a dead woman — to no avail. But when Philip turns his attention to God and opens himself to his power, the woman is restored to life.
Carner is particularly pleased with one supernatural moment that might go unnoticed by most viewers. "One little thing I’m pretty proud of, I don’t know if anyone will notice but me," he says. Describing how most Jesus movies depict the darkness during the crucifixion with clouds rolling in and blotting out the sun, he explains, "The one thing we did not done before is that when Jesus is crucified and darkness falls, it’s a cloudless day. We see the sun lit, and then we see it go out like a light bulb. So there’s no other explanation. It’s much more eerie that way."
Even so, the film’s depiction of Jesus isn’t without problems. For example, the one time Jesus does manifest righteous anger is the scene in which we meet him, which is the cleansing of the temple. Yet immediately afterward Jesus seems to regret his actions, admitting that he "lost my temper" and adding, "I was trying to make a point… but you can’t change a man’s heart by taking away his livelihood."
"That scene has raised questions from a number of people," Carner concedes. "If I had it to do over, when Jesus says ‘I lost my temper’… I would change the line to show that it was righteous anger. Jesus wouldn’t be expressing second thoughts."
Fr. Frank, though, defends the scene. Pointing out that the gospels present differing depictions of Jesus’ transcendence, he argues that in the spectrum from the "high christology" of John to the "low christology" of Mark there is room for different interpretations of Jesus’ personality. Of course, none of the Gospels, Mark included, depicts Jesus having second thoughts or regrets about his actions, so the scene will remain problematic for many.
Another exchange that raised this critic’s eyebrows involved a creative rewrite of Matthew 16:18, the locus classicus for the papacy. Instead of saying to Peter "You are Peter [Rock], and on this rock I will build my church," Jesus here says, "Peter, your faith is like a rock, and on this rock…" Today even Protestant scholars admit that the rock is Peter himself, not his faith; why would a Catholic production water down this passage?
Carner defers to his script authorities. "When it came to the liturgical and historical aspects of the scriptural side of the story, the fact that Fr. Frank was there and worked on the script — I generally deferred to him. I was just glad the scene was there at all." (In fairness to the scene, it’s immediately followed by Judas congratulating Peter on his "elevation," making it clear that Jesus had given Peter a preeminent status.)
Fr. Frank says that the line came from screenwriter Tom Fontana. "When it came time to shoot the scene, that was the dialogue that had been approved, so we went with it," he says. He also points to the film’s intended broad audience, adding that while this Catholic viewer may have noticed a "Protestant" moment in the film, Protestant viewers haved tended to find Judas notably "Catholic," in part because of liturgical and theological elements.
What about the depiction of Judas himself? Carner says the goal was an interpretation of Judas that makes him "comprehensible" but "doesn’t lessen his culpability." Fr. Frank agreed, saying, "We wanted to make him a complex character, we wanted people to identify with him" — and ultimately to realize, "I am capable of betraying a friend."
Like a number of portrayals of Judas (e.g., The Miracle Maker), Judas imagines the betrayer as a Zealot, a revolutionary opposed to Roman rule and hoping in Jesus for a military messiah to deliver Israel from political subjugation. The film opens with a striking image, based on a historical event: a mass crucifixion of hundreds of revolutionaries, one of whom the film imagines to have been the father of a young boy who grows up to become Judas Iscariot.
This combination of revolutionary passion and political preoccupation makes Judas an ideal point of entry to the gospel story for our conflicted age, Fr. Frank feels. "On the one hand, he’s an idealist; on the other hand, he’s a cynic… He seeks the kingdom as a political empire to be brought on by force."
Although softening the gospel picture of Judas as an outright thief, Fr. Frank observes that Judas finds other ways of suggesting its title character’s "cluelessness" regarding "who Jesus really was" as well as his excessive attention to money. In one scene, Judas suggests to the other disciples that they ought to try to get Jesus to charge for his miracles — a suggestion that everyone except Judas recognizes Jesus would never allow.
Toward the end, Judas threatens in a couple of scenes to become a heroic figure, as he goes beyond the biblical expressions of recrimination over betraying innocent blood and begins desperately looking for a way to rescue Jesus from his fate. When Pilate offers the crowd a choice between Jesus and Barabbas, Judas is among a minority shouting for Jesus’ release. Ultimately, though, both the Lord and his betrayer wind up hanging on their appointed trees.
In addition to creating a complex portrait of its title character, Judas also adds new layers of intrigue to the intrigues of the Romans and Jews in connection with the crucifixion. One thing is certain: No one will ever accuse Judas of blaming "the Jews" for Jesus’ death. Instead, the film has Pilate first becoming aware of Jesus as a potential revolutionary and plotting to manipulate Caiaphas to move against him.
One way in which Judas resembles The Passion is that the climax of both films occurs on Good Friday, not Easter Sunday. Just as The Passion is called The Passion for a reason, Fr. Frank observes, "Our film is called Judas" — not Jesus.
At the same time, Fr. Frank points to a number of small artistic premonitions of Easter. One occurs during the pietà scene of Mary cradling the dead Jesus, in which cinematographer Michael Goi bathed the figures in a bright penumbra of light, anticipating the coming glory of the resurrection.
Another occurs as the disciples take down the body of Judas
from the tree — and begin praying a traditional Jewish prayer for
the dead. As the screen fades to black, the words of the prayer
are heard in Jesus’ own voice. It’s an intriguing end to a
well-intentioned film that may well convey something of Jesus’
message to curious and receptive viewers.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.