The last project of Father Bud Keiser, sometimes called "God's agent" for his years producing religious films in Hollywood, was "Judas," a portrait of Christ's infamous betrayer. Written by the award-winning scenarist Tom Fontana and directed and played by other devoted Catholics, the role raises sometimes uncomfortable questions about Judas by imagining him as a complete human being, with his own quite understandable reasons for joining, and eventually handing over Jesus. The movie will be shown on ABC Monday, March 8. Beliefnet talked recently with Father Frank Desiderio, Fr. Keiser's successor at Paulist Productions, who saw "Judas" to completion.

There's been a lot of press lately about evangelicals in Hollywood. But this movie seems to have come out of a Catholic cabal.
[Laughs.] There's no secret handshake. You're starting to sound like Dan Brown. Let's put it this way: everything in Hollywood happens because of relationships and money. And to a much lesser degree, people's person belief system. But ABC wouldn't have made it if they didn't think it was going to be a ratings hit.

The screenwriter, Tom Fontana, executive producer of "Oz," is a Catholic, and the director, Charles Carner, is too.
And Jonathan Schaech, who plays Judas. His father raised him to be a good Catholic. His dad is a Baltimore cop, a kind of blue collar Catholic type. I met Jonathan through kind of a Christians-in-Hollywood group called Open Call. Somebody on the Board of Directors of Open Call who is a friend of Jonathan's said, "I've got this friend, he'd be great." And I'm saying, "Oh sure." Then I met him and I knew he was right.

How long were you working on the movie?
The first draft of the script was done September 2000. We delivered it to ABC November of 2001.

So did ABC shelve it until "The Passion" made such a stir?
They told me that in 2002 they didn't have the money to properly promote it. In 2003, you'd have to ask them. Today, I see it as providential that this movie was waiting for the publicity wave of Mel Gibson's movie-and I think they compliment each other nicely. We tell why Jesus was crucified.

Obviously this is a rather sympathetic view of Judas. In the history of the Church, has he gone in and out of favor?
What you find is a certain literary history with Judas. Since Jesus had to die for the redemption to happen, somebody had to hand him over, not betray him, but hand him over. And Jesus would only trust the strongest disciple to do it. So he entrusted Judas, who was the strongest disciple and his best friend to do what He thought none of the others were capable of doing. That's a little piece of the literary tradition.

Most of what we get is what I'd call the Augustinian model. Augustine said that he was the archetypical Jew, and he meant that in a very derogatory way-the cheat, the betrayer, the greedy, avaricious Jew. In art, Judas is always shown as the ugliest of the apostles. He's always got a bag of money in his hand, or he has no face at all. But you could always pick him out in scenes of the twelve because he's the really nasty looking one. Dante put him in the lowest circle of hell.

So in the West, Judas is seen as the most horrible person in history. If you want to tell a unique story, I mean if you want to tell an interesting story, if you want to tell something that people aren't expecting, you do a reversal. In our post-psychoanalytical, postmodern age, Judas is cynical about leadership and he's kind of very idealistic but at the same time cynical. I think that's what art does. It fills in the blanks that scripture left. It gets people thinking.

What's the value of showing the human side of Judas?
We all betray Christ in big and little ways. Whenever we sin we're betraying Christ and we betray each other. We've created a character, a disciple of Christ that people could relate to. We're showing Judas the disciple who keeps missing the point and that's like a lot of people. A lot of Christians miss the point, and a lot of people keep telling Jesus what to do rather than listening to what Jesus wants them to do.

When Judas hangs himself, the implication that Judas sought forgiveness.
Well, no. We wanted to keep that ambiguous so we wanted every viewer to make his own decision about that one. If he asked for forgiveness even at the very last minute, he could have been forgiven. James and Peter and John pray over the body of Judas. That's the payoff, which says there is the possibility of forgiveness even for the worst sin. It also says Jesus' death has the effect of converting these disciples, because see throughout the whole movie James hates Judas. It's James who says, "I don't know why we are praying for Judas." Peter says, "Because Jesus would have wanted us to," and James prays for him. What most people won't notice is when they're praying the Kaddish, their voices fade out and you hear the voice of Jesus finish the prayer. We didn't have the rock rolling away, but we did want to put in a resurrection moment. And so that was one.

Given the controversy of "The Passion," it was fascinating to watch how you dealt with the question of the culpability for Jesus' death.
We talked about that a lot before we did the final script. I had a rabbi, David Baron, who was our technical consultant.

What did you decide?
First we established, with a mass crucifixion scene at the beginning of the movie, that the Jews were constantly and viciously oppressed by the Romans. There was a mass crucifixion, somewhere around 50 years before Christ. We made Judas' father one of those rebels, which then gives him the psychological back story as to why he is so angry and why he feels he has a destiny to fulfill. The rest of the movie plays out that tension. Pilate says to Herod, "Execute him," and Herod replies, "We Jews aren't so quick to kill as you Romans." With Caiaphas and Pilate, we establish a political context, which is a powder keg, and Jesus walks into it. His crucifixion makes sense. It's not just the vindictive Sanhedrin going after this nice guy. They've got a real reason to kill him.

There's a guideline. After Martin Scorsese's film "The Last Temptation of Christ" came out in 1988, the Catholic bishops put out Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion, basically guidelines for how you portray the Jewish people in Passion Plays. We went through it and said, okay, there are certain things we're going to do and certain things we're not going to do. We don't have the line in there about the blood guilt of the Jews.

We did one thing that's not biblical and not scriptural. It is in scripture that Cephus has people in the crowd yelling for Barabbas, and that's in scripture. We had the Romans do the same thing. So we had Roman soldiers in disguise yelling for Barabbas. So the deck is stacked but it's not just the Jews stacking the deck, it's the Romans stacking the deck as well.

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