On March 8, within two weeks of the release of The Passion of the Christ, ABC will air Judas, a made-for-TV movie about the disciple who betrayed Jesus. The latter film will not be served by its proximity to Mel Gibson's work. The effect is tempering: Those who hope the success of The Passion will produce more Hollywood movies examining the life of Christ should have second thoughts after watching the embarrassing Judas. Or, better yet, take the advice of WORLD and don't watch it.
If nothing else, Judas reveals Mel Gibson to be an artistic genius. The two films are a study in contrasts, but it's not worth dwelling on the comparison. Judas employs nearly every cliché that has become synonymous with bad biblical epics (and that Mr. Gibson sought to avoid), from bad hair to bad sets to really, really bad dialogue.
The movie purports to tell the back story of Judas, identified by ABC as "perhaps the most complex character in the Gospels." To do this, the script makes Judas central to almost every event in Christ's adult life. Judas wants an earthly king to overthrow the Romans, becoming a foil for Jesus, who has a more spiritual mission in mind.
Judas begins by stating that "the following film is an interpretative dramatization of Judas's relationship with Jesus." What exactly the film is interpreting is not clear, since it is most certainly not working from the Bible or accepted historic documents, except in rough outline.
Most of the dialogue hovers between the painfully funny and just plain painful. Judas first meets the Messiah after witnessing Jesus clearing the Temple of merchants. Judas, to Jesus, over a cup of wine: "You know, I have to tell you, I was very impressed with what you did at the Temple today." Jesus replies, somewhat chagrined and regretful, "Well, don't be. You know, I was trying to make a point and lost my temper. You can't change a man's heart by yelling at him, by humiliating him, by taking away his livelihood."
Later, Jesus asks Judas to handle His money, saying, "I'm no good with money. Whatever I have, I tend to lose." In another scene, Herod refers to John the Baptist as "a pain in the ass." It's enough to make one long for Aramaic.
The one interesting aspect of the production is that it works overtime to avoid the perceived anti-Semitism of a literal reading of the Gospels, creating a bizarre conspiracy scenario in which Pontius Pilate (Tim Matheson of Animal House fame) orchestrates the events leading up to the crucifixion in order to pin the blame for Christ's death on the Jews. -Andrew Coffin
The plot sounds intriguing. During the Middle Ages, a priest struggling with his faith and on the run meets up with a band of traveling actors. Their first stop is a town in which a woman has just been condemned to death for the murder of a young boy. The actors decide to write their own drama based on these still unfolding events, rather than producing one of their traditional biblically themed plays. They start digging into the details of the crime and the accused, and begin to uncover some disturbing facts.
The cast is top-notch. Paul Bettany (Master and Commander, A Beautiful Mind) stars as the conflicted priest. The talented Willem Dafoe plays the leader of the acting troupe, and both are surrounded by fine British supporting players (including Brian Cox and Gina McKee).
But The Reckoning (rated R for some sexuality and violent images) proves that there's no such thing as a sure thing. Despite the talent involved and an appealing premise, The Reckoning is an uninspired bore. The plot only produces minimal interest in the mystery at the heart of the story, and its resolution is both unpleasant and unsurprising. The actors make the film watchable, but their performances are drowned in an implausible, shallow script.
More disappointing still, The Reckoning never really digs into any of its deeper themes. Questions of faith, divided loyalty, and moral crisis are skimmed over but never plumbed with any depth, as if the film never trusts its audience to be able to follow these characters beneath the surface of the story. Apparently, Barry Unsworth's book, Morality Play, on which this film is based, is much braver in tackling some of these issues. It's a pity that none of this made it to the screen. -Andrew Coffin