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    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

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    Tuesday, March 20, 2018

    Judas in Mary Magdalene (2018)

    I posted my main review of Mary Magdalene at the weekend but there were a couple of the things about the film that I wanted to explore, but that felt a little too specific for a general review and that also seemed like good ideas for a blog post in and of themselves. The portrayal of Mary has been covered by numerous others and, in particular, it's been interesting to hear what various female critics and academics have had to say about her. So instead I'd look at the film's portrayal of Judas.


    Perhaps the most striking thing about the film's portrayal of Judas is that we don't find out his name until his character has had a chance to get well established. This has a major impact on the film's ability to portray him sympathetically.

    When Mary first meets the disciples overall they are fairly morose and whilst not actively hostile, they certainly aren't welcoming. There is, however, one notable exception. This character is smiley and open and chats to Mary in a friendly fashion. She warms to him far more than the other, more remote, disciples.

    One of their key conversations goes into why this disciple decided to follow Jesus. The story is a little unclear, but this is done in such a fashion as to makes the conversation seem more realistic, not because this character is hiding something. It seems his wife and daughter died as a result of Herod's unrelenting taxes in the midst of a food shortage, and Herod's willingness to call in the might of Rome to ensure his demands are met. It's not quite clear - even less so a few days after viewing it - whether they died by the sword, from hunger, from illness, or by their own hand, but clearly the disciple is still deeply mourning their loss.

    It's no surprise then that what is most attracting this disciple to Jesus is his talk of the coming kingdom and the end of the world. The disciple sees this as a chance to be re-united with his family. And it's around this point in the story that the film confirms what many in the audience are already expecting: that this character is Judas. Even so, and like many moments in the film, the revelation isn't made dramatically, as if to underline it's theological significance. Jesus just casually uses his name in a normal every day kind of way, in a way that's consistent with the disciples klnowledge of him. There's no sensational music, dramatic cut, or camera zooming in. There's not even a gap in the dialogue. But to the audience it becomes apparent that just as the film has sought to turn the traditional portrayal of Mary on it's head, it is approaching the character of Judas differently too.

    However, by delaying the moment when Judas' name is revealed, it allows the audience to get to know Judas as a character without associating him with all his cultural baggage. And obviously it goes out of his way to present him as a sympathetic character: friendly, smiley, nervous, vulnerable and clearly hurting.

    After these initial moments, Judas' becomes a little less prominent for a while, but it becomes clear that the reason he is going to betray Jesus is to try and force his hand into revealing who he is and bringing about the kingdom. This is one of the most commonly given motivations for Judas' actions in films about Jesus, but here it's made more effective because Jesus does seem weak and indecisive. But whereas in other film this makes Judas seem aggressive, impatient, arrogant, misguided, or lacking understanding, here it's far more understandable. Judas' despair at what has happened to his family is beginning to envelop him. When Jesus fails to use the incident in the temple as the springboard for his new world he frets that he might not get to see his family soon enough. Jesus' weakness is also becoming more apparent so Judas really sees himself as being a good and helpful friend. He's entirely well meaning.

    It's significant as well that we don't see the moments that Judas makes his arrangement with the high priest. Omitting scenes of Judas agreeing to betray Jesus again makes things more sympathetic. Crucially, throughout the film there is no mention of the 30 pieces of silver. Judas is not portrayed as dishonest, he isn't stealing money from the common purse, he doesn't chastise Mary for not selling her nard for money to give to the poor, he's not greedy, or even in debt. The money is never mentioned or seen.

    Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this portrayal though is how it portrays Judas' final moments. In contrast to every other Jesus film to cover these, Judas does not hang himself until after Jesus has died, indeed he still hasn't entirely given up hope whilst Jesus is still alive. There's even one moment after the betrayal where he smiles. Whilst he is, perhaps, beginning to fear the worst he doesn't fully realise what he has done until Jesus is dead.

    Even then, Judas has been so well meaning, so hurting yet hopeful that Judas still doesn't come across as a villain. And whereas the other male disciples have fled, Judas, along with Mary, is still there watching Jesus die, waiting for the moment.

    And then Mary, reaches out, and touches a broken Judas by the hand to comfort him. And it's not entirely unwarranted. This is not the actions of a Mary who is so Christlike that she's willing to reach out to Judas even after horrific sin. It's because she, and we, understand how he got things wrong, that he didn't mean for this to happen (that's a common line in Jesus films, but here it never really elicits that much sympathy). It's quite a remarkable moment, because it feels like the actions of a compassionate human, not the act of a super-being, or someone so holy that there action seems unreal.

    Nevertheless Judas' role ends as it always ends. Mary asks where Judas is going. He replies that he is going to see his family. We know the story enough to know what he means, but Mary does not, though perhaps she suspects it on some level.

    In contrast with other portrayals (yet again) Judas hangs himself in the town, not in a garden or countryside. The final shot of Judas starts with a wide shot of the hillside covered with houses, in a way that is so typical of Matera. The camera gently zooms in and it becomes apparent partway through that in the doorway of the house in the middle of the shot a man has hung himself. Having started with the wide shot, with so many doorways apparent, the impact of Judas' mistake are dwarfed by the impact of the bigger shot. So many other human lives. So many other mistakes. Even this final shot carries the sense of compassion for Judas which is held throughout the film and is typical of Mary's role in particular.


    If you're interested in this post, you might also be interested in Carol Hebron's book Judas Iscariot: Damned or Redeemed - A Critical Examination of the Portrayal of Judas in Jesus Films (1902-2014) (2016) Bloomsbury

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