• Bible Films Blog

    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.

    Matt Page


    Saturday, February 20, 2021

    Histoire de Judas (2015)

    As the cradle of cinema in general, and biblical movies in particular, France's religious films (often featuring long static takes) have travelled from the Lumieres, Pathé Passion plays and Alice Guy, via the likes of Robert Bresson and Philippe Garrel, to find recent expression in works such as Le fils de Joseph (2016) and now Histoire de Judas (The Story of Joseph). Of course this kind of slow, contemplative cinema is hardly unique to France, but the connection between the two is certainly well-established.

    Histoire is a strikingly beautiful film. Director Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche sets his take on the Jesus story in the midst of some remarkable exteriors on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Ameur-Zaïmeche was born in Algeria, before his family moved to France two years later, which is perhaps why he chose to locate the film in the Biskra province in northeastern Algerian and the Roman ruins at Thamugadi in the Aurès Mountains.  While his film is very much anti-epic in style with it's long static takes and its slow pace, in an odd way the breathtaking scenery lends the film some of the same kind of feeling the original audiences might have got from a DeMillean spectacle; one is seduced by the striking images, even though there's an historical unlikeliness inherent in their eye-catching nature. Riccardo Centola sums up well the film's anti-epic style:
    Lo stesso Gesù viene rappresentato volutamente secondo canoni antispettacolari, in atteggiamento quasi sempre meditabondo, a viso semi-coperto, mentre snocciola frasi celebri nel modo meno enfatico possibile.

    Often Jesus' representation is deliberately according to anti-spectacular traditions: in attitude, almost always brooding; his face half covered, while he rattles off celebrated phrases in the least emphatic manner possible. (translation mine).1
    Irina Lubtchansky's cinematography brings a sensuous, materialist quality to the images here. When a woman anoints Jesus with perfume - which we have just witnessed her bartering prized possessions to obtain - you can practically smell the aroma of the oil as it dribbles tantalisingly across Jesus' forehead. As with other films directed by Ameur-Zaïmeche's, the ambient sounds are enhanced giving the impression of a world that endures beyond the confines of the narrative. Elsewhere it's the lighting. In contrast to the bright, colourful exteriors dominated by blue skies and ocre rocks, the interiors opt for more a tenebristic feel. Indeed Ameur-Zaïmeche cites Caravaggio and Rembrandt as the inspiration for these scenes. 2

    Visually Histoire de Judas recalls a number of Jesus films. The anti-epic and desert locales recall Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo (Gospel According to Matthew. 1964) and Albert Serra's less familiar El cant dels ocells (Birdsong, 2008), but also, to a lesser extent, Le lit de la Vierge (The Virgin's Bed, 1969), although that may be partly due to both films - and perhaps French-language Jesus films in general - typifying the tendency to veer into philosophy. (Indeed, the trial scenes feel similar to those from Jesus of Montreal (1989), for this very reason, and that's only French-Canadian). Surprisingly, the Jesus film to which Ameur-Zaïmeche actually refers to in the press pack is Carl Theodore Dreyer's (ultimately unmade) Jesus of Nazareth.3 However, the most striking piece of intertextuality is with Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). Both films rely on desert locations, even during the trial scenes and both films are set amongst Roman remains which whilst largely ruined nevertheless both feature prominent columns.  

    One other Jesus film that comes to mind while watching Histoire is Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Both films re-cast Judas as Jesus' closest friend, who knows him even before his temptation in the desert and who remains faithful even after Jesus' crucifixion. Ameur-Zaïmeche's film goes several steps further, however, for here Judas is not even responsible for leading the guards to Jesus.4 Indeed this attempt to "rehabilitate Judas" with a more sympathetic portrayal is the film's main premise.5 The opening scene shows Judas ascending a mountain to retrieve Jesus after his 40-day fast, which has left his master so weakened by the experience that Judas has to give him a piggy back all the way back to Nazareth. Later Judas persuades his former zealot colleagues to arrange for a crowd to attend Jesus' triumphal entry in to the city and he quickly follows his master's lead in destroying the cages and tables in the temple. "No living being deserves to be in a cage" he announces as the people begin to contribute to the carnage.

    However the biggest and most significant deviation from the Gospels surrounds the Last Supper and Jesus' arrest. Earlier in the day Judas witnesses a man from Qumran (who is presumably meant to be an Essene, the group responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls) writing down what Jesus is saying. Judas knows Jesus is opposed to this (he "distrusts the word that is frozen, and which will inevitably become dogma, a tool of power, an instrument of domination and submission") and so having confronted the man, seeks permission to destroy his writings. And this what Jesus means at the Last Supper when he tells Judas to do what he has to do quickly.

    [SPOILERS]So while Jesus and the other disciples head to Gethsemane (seemingly without the knowledge that Jesus is to be arrested there) Judas heads to Qumran and burns the Essene's writings. However, shortly afterwards the man finds his records in ashes and rushes to confront Judas, stabbing him in the stomach and leaving him for dead. Judas is found and returned. A Samaritan (named so in the credits6) returns him to the city, but by the time Judas awakes and staggers to Golgotha, Jesus has already died on the cross. Judas finds Jesus' recently vacated tomb and unaware of the significance of what has happened lies down 'in Jesus' place' and dies. The shot deliberately evokes Hans Holbein the Younger's "The Dead Christ in the Tomb" (1521-22),7 and is the first film I can think of where Judas dies not by hanging as in Matt 27:3-10, but in a way that more closely relates to the Bible's other description of Judas' death in Acts 1:15-20.[END SPOILERS]

    But the film's inherent sympathy for Judas is perhaps best embodied by the fact that Ameur-Zaïmeche himself plays Judas and that he chose his close friend Nabil Djedouani to play Jesus. (Djedouani is a director in his own right and is also credited by Ameur-Zaïmeche as an Assistant Director, one of a number of cast members to also take roles in the crew - Marie Loustalot cast as Bathsheba, was assistant editor).8

    Ameur-Zaïmeche's five other major films - Wesh wesh, qu'est-ce qui se passe? (2001), Bled Number One (2006), Dernier Maquis (2008), Les chants de Mandrin (2011) and Terminal Sud (2019) - have, to a greater or lesser extent, explored Algerian-French identity, and the accompanying internal and external conflicts. His Berber family moved to France when he was just two, so just as all his other films have primarily been in French, and so too is Histoire. This does seem to have raised a few eyebrows,9  However, whilst it's understandable that a director born in Algeria might seek out Algerian locations to stand in for the Holy Land, as someone who has lived in France since the age of two it's only natural that his film is shot in French. Rather than being a purely Algerian film it's more nuanced and complex than that.

    However, the use of French in an Algerian context does recall the country's suffering under French colonialism. In particular the extended scenes where Pilate (Régis Laroche) and his colleagues - played by a white actors -  interrogate Jesus adds an extra dimension, almost as if they are events from the fringes of the Algerian War. Pilate fears Jesus is a revolutionary and wants to quell the threat to the empire. "Look all around you. Your empire lies in ruins" says Jesus at one point, "it’s in my name that nations will place their hopes".

    That said the tone of the discussion here is decidedly philosophical compared to standard Hollywood fare. It feels like a number of French-language Jesus films similarly pit Pilate and Jesus against one another in a battle of philosophy, though perhaps my impression of that is exaggerated by my love of existential New Wave movies. Nevertheless, both Golgotha (1935) and Jesus of Montreal (1989) feature relatively long sequences where Jesus and Pilate engage in philosophical tête-à-tête. It perhaps also reflects Ameur-Zaïmeche's uses of Roger Caillois' "Ponce Pilate". I have to say I'm not hugely in favour of these kind of portrayals: The more Pilate appears as philosophical, the less he seems like the brute of Luke 13, Philo and Josephus, and the more the blame for Jesus death deflects from him onto the Jewish people. That said, given that Ameur-Zaïmeche's motivation for making Histoire de Judas was to counter antisemitism, it's less of a concern in this case.

    These concerns are also offset by the film's handling of the Barabbas figure. Here he is called Carabas and he appears to have a severe cognitive disability. Pilate has him arrested but the chief priests seeing the injustice appeal to Pilate and persuade him that Carabas is not a threat. By dismantling the way the Gospels place the two men in opposition, and by making distinction (found in Mark 15:6-8) between trying to save Carabas / Barabbas and trying to have Jesus killed this also counters many of the ways that the text has often been presented which reinforce antisemitism.

    However, perhaps the film's biggest weakness is that it's unclear who exactly was driving Jesus' execution. Judas is recast as Jesus' great friend, nowhere near the events in Gethsemane. The priests have some qualms, but don't seem particularly involved and even Pilate seems reluctant. Things kind of fall on one of Pilate's advisers, but it's not exactly convincing.

    Nevertheless, this is an interesting take on the story and one which is beautifully shot. For those who are interested, it's currently available on Mubi along with several of Ameur-Zaïmeche's other films.


    Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat have also reviewed this film at spiritualityandpractice.com. Moreover Reinhold Zwick has written more extensively on the film in the soon to be published T&T Clark Handbook of Jesus and Film (pp.67-76) edited by Richard Walsh and also containing an essay from me.


    1 - Centola, Riccardo (2015) "21 MFF Histoire de Judas" at Cinemafrica, 11 November. Available online: http://www.cinemafrica.org/spip.php?article1603 

    2 - Frodon, Jean-Michel (2015), “An Interview with Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche,” in Sarrazink Productions (ed.), Presskit for Story of Judas. Available online: https://medias.unifrance.org/medias/7/42/141831/presse/story-of-judas-presskit-french.pdf

    3 - Frodon, "Interview"

    4 - In Last Temptation Judas does this only after Jesus' emphatic instructions to do so. It's hardly what could be called a betrayal.

    5 - Ameur-Zaïmeche, Rabah (2015) "Director’s Note" in Sarrazink Productions (ed.), Pressbook for "Story of Judas". Available online: https://medias.unifrance.org/medias/44/47/143148/presse/story-of-judas-presskit-english.pdf

    6 - Zwick, Reinhold (2021) "Inculturation and Actualization: Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche’s Histoire de Judas" in Walsh, Richard (ed.) T&T Clark Handbook of Jesus and Film, London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark. p.69

    7 - Frodon, "Interview"

    8 - Frodon, "Interview"

    9 - Not only does Frodon ask Ameur-Zaïmeche about this in the press-pack interview, but both Centalo and Zwick (p.67) have also questioned this decision/choice/move.

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