A Film Comment online exclusive
By Olaf Möller
The idea of a film devoted solely to the final stage of Jesus of Nazareth's life is not as original as it sounds. Italian filmmaker Paolo Benvenuti beat Mel Gibson to it in his 1988 debut The Kiss of Judas (Il bacio di Giuda). More or less the antithesis of The Passion of the Christ, it's one of cinema's most original treatments of the Bible.
Well, not just the Bible. There are other elements at play in this metatextual endeavor. Like most Bible-based films about Jesus, The Kiss of Judas is based on the Gospel according to Matthew-probably because his account was the one most obviously conceived in narrative terms. But like Gibson, Benvenuti also incorporates apocryphal texts, as befits what is basically an essay on the Gnostic notion of dualism in which Judas Ischariot's betrayal of Jesus is essential for the fulfillment of His destiny. It's not that darkness allows light to shine more brightly, but that without darkness there can be no light. Put simply, evil is a fundamental, existential condition of Christianity, something that can never be defeated, but only struggled against.
Benveunti's and Gibson's films both begin with the same decisive moment: Judas's kiss and the subsequent arrest of Jesus. But, instead of showing a victorious struggle-which is what The Passion of the Christ's narrative amounts to, tinged with a strange, disturbingly unreflective masochism-The Kiss of Judas backtracks a few days to show Jesus (Carlo Bachi) convincing Judas (Gorgio Algranti) to accept his mission. Jesus reasons with with both urgency and patience-time is running out, yet he has all the time in the world. Later, in a scene with Nicodemus (Emidio Simini), Judas speaks of how the dualities and paradoxes that Jesus has revealed to him have demolished all his certainty and enabled him to see the world in a different way: Jesus's deeds exemplify all possibilities, culminating in the confrontation with the Sanhedrin (high tribunal). The film ends with Judas's decision to do as it is written, making free choice subservient to destiny (which is basically what The Last Temptation of Christ is getting at).
A film about reflection and interpretation, The Kiss of Judas is conceived as a meta-historical work, à la Straub/Huillet, a reading of readings, a dialectical working-through of the different layers of representation, evoking the vast alongside the miniscule-something the director learned from the Maggio di Buti tradition in Tuscany (folklore of saints' lives sung in an oral epic mode). Benvenuti doesn't strive for an historically accurate recreation of time and place: Instead he creates his own version of things, so that, for example, period costumes harmoniously mix with armor from the Renaissance, whose Tuscan school of painting-Giotto, Massacio, Piero della Francesca-helped form our perception of the Bible. The Gospels were only translated into Italian in the mid 19th century, and so it's anybody's guess to what extent they were influenced by the Tuscan school, not to mention popular folk traditions like the Maggio. Albert Camus's thoughts come to mind here: how the paintings of the Tuscan school were not about emotions but reflections of the presence of man-the same way that man is a reflection of God, one might add.
In the end, The Kiss of Judas exalts viewers by putting its faith in their critical intelligence-rather than thrashing them into submission.
© 2004 by Olaf Möller