Judas: Vladivostok Review

A quasi-alternative history is carried by a compelling central performance.

Aleksey Shevchenkov plays Jesus' most devoted disciple in Andrey Bogatyrev's adaptation of Leonid Andreev’s "Judas Iscariot."

The story of Jesus and Judas is recounted in an adaptation of Leonid Andreev’s Judas Iscariot in Judas, a lushly dusty spin on a familiar tale from a different perspective. There’s little in Judas that hasn’t been theorized or explored before, but director Andrey Bogatyrev (BaGi) cleverly draws an alternative theory of Judas’ motivations, and draws an astounding, committed performance from his star. Festival play is all but assured, however, Judas is neither a glossy big budget Passion of the Christ nor a controversy lightning rod along the lines of The Last Temptation of Christ, making even an art house release a long shot, and that would likely be concentrated in Europe.

The concept that Jesus’ betrayer was his most devoted follower is expanded on, suggesting that the word of Jesus was misunderstood by his earliest devotees to the degree that Jesus is a peripheral character called simply the Teacher. Focused squarely on Judas (Aleksey Shevchenkov, in full spitting, rotten-toothed glory) the film begins with Judas casing a market in order to put in a good day of pick-pocketing. He stumbles upon a Nazarene man delivering a sermon in the town square and decides to follow the followers when he gets a look at the fat purse of alms they’ve collected. Naturally, Judas tries to steal it that night, and when the preacher, the Teacher, forgives him and tells his disciples to let him keep the money, Judas dedicates himself to the cause. We all know how the story ends.

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Looking at Judas’ notorious betrayal from Judas’ own perspective can be a dicey prospect, but Bogatyrev’s central tenet is that Jesus’ followers didn’t truly understand his message and that Judas betrayed him out of a genuine desire to perpetuate a message that could easily be lost. This Judas is argumentative, continually challenging both disciples and townsfolk as he comes to his own, personal understanding of Jesus’ message—and the nature of God. In essence the film asks if Judas’ forced martyrdom of Christ didn’t pave the way for his teachings to take greater root.

Judas would only be half as effective as it is if Shevchenkov were not so fully engaged in the character; the calculation behind his eyes is almost tangible. Despite the occasional flight into histrionics (which could just as easily be Bogatyrev’s decision), his snarling performance is demanding at the best of times, though it’s most affecting in the quieter moments: when he meets with Pilate and strikes a deal for 30 pieces of silver; in the reflective closing scenes. Not surprisingly Dmitry Maltsev’s cinematography also contributes an alternately barren and busy sun-baked backdrop that effortlessly highlights Judas’ ideological, and occasionally physical, isolation.

Producer: Tatyana Voronetskaya

Director: Andrey Bogatyrev

Cast: Aleksey Shevchenkov, Ivan Dobronravov, Sergey Frolov, Andrey Barilo, Vadim Yakovlev, Olga Stashkevich

Screenwriter: Vselvolod Benigsen, based on the book by Leonid Andreev

Director of Photography: Dmitry Maltsev

Production Designer: Aleksandr Telin

Music: Sergey Solovyov, Dmitry Kurylandsky

Costume Designer: Natalia Dzubenko

Editor: Andrey Bogatyrev

No rating, 108 minutes