‘Story of Judas’: Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A pleasingly nonconformist New Testament in the Pasolini tradition

Judas Iscariot gets fully rehabilitated in Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche’s original retelling of the biblical story

At a time of great ideological conflict among world religions, there seems to be more interest than ever in reexamining the lives of leading religious figures. In the French film The Story of Judas (Histoire de Judas), the title character is not the arch-traitor of history but Jesus’s closest friend and loving disciple, ready to do anything to protect him. Written, directed and produced by French-Algerian filmmaker and actor Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche, who plays Judas Iscariot with rough-and-ready passion, it’s a fascinating reworking of an oft-told tale, given more realism by being shot in natural desert landscapes and amid ancient ruins. The overall tone is extremely respectful, but it's easy to imagine that its deviation from church orthodoxy will alienate a certain part of the audience, while it attracts another segment.   

In his fourth feature Smugglers' Songs, Ameur-Zaimeche turned his attention to recounting the French revolution. Here he pushes into even bolder territory with mixed results. The film walks a thin line between the stylization of its stark desert locations which recall the stripped-down simplicity of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), and a tendency to slip into theatricality in key scenes, as though the film was based on a play and not an original screenplay. Scenes like Jesus’ fake trial by the headachy Pontius Pilate, set amid ancient ruins, are so arty they undercut empathy and involvement with the characters.

On the other hand, there are moments when the sheer beauty of the biblical story bursts forth, as in the mysterious story of the woman (Patricia Malvoison ) who sells all she has to buy an expensive perfume to pour over the hair and beard of Jesus (Nabil Djedouani).  In another affecting scene, Jesus stops the Pharisees from stoning a sinful woman (Marie Loustalot) by quietly writing on the ground and suggesting that he who is without sin should cast the first stone. As familiar as this story is, it is made fresh and new by the uncanny understatement of Djedouani’s half-hidden performance, played from under a head shawl and  behind scraggly hair.  

The low-key dignity and authoritativeness of the rabbi Jesus of Nazareth draws awe-struck crowds when he teaches. Though the size of his following looks quite limited on screen, they convey the idea of his growing popularity. The Jewish and Roman authorities start to wonder whether he represents a danger to their power.  Well aware of this, the cunning Judas – whom Jesus calls his “brother” – makes practical arrangements with some strong-armed goons to protect him.

It’s a far cry from Harvey Keitel’s much maligned perf as the tormented Judas in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ or Carl Anderson’s in Jesus Christ Superstar, yet curiously all three films give Judas a central role in the Passion story and show him as a far more positive character than standard Gospel lore. In fact, his rehabilitation accelerated in 2006 when the National Geographic Society made public a 1,700-year-old manuscript identified as the long-lost Gospel of Judas. In it, Judas doesn’t betray Jesus to the Roman soldiers for 30 pieces of gold, but hands him over to the authorities at the Master’s own behest.

Ameur-Zaimeche’s screenplay takes this historical make-over a step further in suggesting that the whole traitor story was probably the fabrication of a vindictive young scribe wronged by Judas. For some reason never made clear, Judas is incensed to find a young man from Qumran (land of the Dead Sea Scrolls) taking notes as Jesus speaks. In a terse exchange overheard by the other apostles, the Lord tells him to “do what he is going to do, and do it quickly.” Judas takes this as a green light to burn the manuscripts of the “accursed scribe”, while the Gospel reports it as a prediction of his betrayal of Christ. In any case, the film’s alternate explanation for Jesus’ words is not very convincing, because why would he order these eye-witness accounts to be destroyed?

If the film steps very carefully around the Jewish high priests and tricky Pharisees, it doesn’t take as many pains in its presentation of the Romans, toy soldiers with a political agenda who are made to take on vague modern-day connotations as the “occupying powers” in Judaea. This is echoed in the children and rabble who mindlessly chant anti-Roman slogans around a madman, Carabas (a raving, wild-eyed Mohamed Aroussi), a mysterious figure who would have had more impact on stage. All this seem peripheral to the main story.

Visually, there is a strong, unexpected physicality to the windswept rock formations and Mediterranean colors. Cinematographer Irina Lubtchansky captures a spectacular, resonant landscape of palm trees and antiquity rising out of sands, while she gives a painterly quality to the interiors lit by flamelight.

Production companies: Sarrazink Productions, Arte France Cinéma

Cast: Nabil Djedouani, Mohamed Aroussi, Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, Marie Loustalot, Patricia Malvoisin, Eliott Khayat, Regis Laroche, Xavier Mussel, Roland Gervet, Nouari Nezzar

Director, Screenwriter: Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche
Producer: Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, Rémi Burah
Director of photography: Irina Lubtchansky
Production designer: Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche
Costume designer: Alice Cambournac
Editor: Grégoire Pontecaille
Music: Rodolphe Burger

No rating, 99 minutes