TV religion

The Passion according to Judas

It's hard to watch Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" without concluding that the suicidal Judas Iscariot was chased by demons into the pit of hell.

On the other hand, it's hard to watch the ABC television movie "Judas" without concluding that somehow, before he hanged himself, his sense of remorse put him back on the road to redemption.

These movies offer radically different takes on the Passion and events that led to it. While Gibson has been attacked for his stark, traditional Catholicism, "Judas" (March 8, 9 p.m. EST) offers a modern, made-for-television, post-Vatican II Catholic approach.

"It's hard to have your little movie compared to a $25 million epic by an Academy Award winner," said Charles Robert Carner, who directed "Judas" when it was filmed back in the summer of 2001. "We don't want people to see this as some kind of cheesy TV rip-off of this big movie. ...

"We did our thing long before anybody knew Mel Gibson was making the Passion. We're just thankful that our movie finally has a chance to be seen."

Produced by the Catholic media pioneers at Paulist Productions, "Judas" began nearly a decade ago as one of the final projects of the late Rev. Ellwood "Bud" Kieser, founder of the Humanitas Prize. The goal was to create a miniseries called "Jesus and Company," which would tell the same story a number of times, only seen through the eyes of characters such as Peter, Mary Magdalene, Judas and others. In the end, only "Judas" became a reality.

The movie was shot in only 23 days in Morocco with a $5 million budget. The 106-page script came from executive producer Tom Fontana, who is best known for his gritty work in crime dramas such as "Oz" and "Homicide: Life on the Streets."

"Judas" was supposed to have aired during the Easter season in 2002.

"The movie is coming out now because of 'The Passion' and all of the publicity it has generated," said the Rev. Frank Desiderio, president of Paulist Productions. "Our movie deals with some of the same material, but in a very different way. We would like to bring more light, rather than heat, to some of the issues that are being discussed."

"Judas" opens with a crucifixion, only the man on the cross is one of hundreds of Jews being executed by the Romans. The man is Judas' father and this event plants a fierce hatred of the "Roman bloodsuckers" in the heart of his young son. Judas grows up to become a bitter urban rebel and his anti-establishment anger prevents him from grasping the peaceful, sacrificial message of Jesus.

The goal was to look traditional and sound contemporary. Jesus is shown performing miracles that literally take place onscreen, while speaking in modern, even chatty, language. Some viewers and critics may find it jarring, but the "Judas" team did this intentionally.

Desiderio is also unapologetic about the movie's hopeful ending.

Judas, of course, hangs himself in a fit of guilt, despair and madness.

Still, the voice of Jesus is heard in a flashback, telling Judas: "I want you to spend eternity with me _ with my father. It's not too late. It's never too late."

Later, Peter and two apostles pray over the traitor's lifeless body, because that is what Jesus would have wanted them to do.

So did Judas go to heaven? This may seem like a radical idea, said Desiderio. But it's a logical question for modern Catholics.

"Without that flashback, I would never have made the movie," said the priest. "That's the point. It's never too late. That's the message to Judas and to each and every one of us. ... The Catholic Church teaches that there is a hell, but we don't know if anyone is in it. Only God knows if Judas was somehow able to repent and find forgiveness.

"That is what this movie is saying: It's never too late to turn back to God."