After the epic creation myth of Mother Monster in “Born This Way,” the video for Lady Gaga’s “Judas” feels modest by comparison; here she’s merely co-opting the foundational story of the entire Christian faith. Gaga presents the video as “a motorcycle Fellini movie,” and in a sense, that’s precisely what we get. She’s invoked the Italian auteur in the past, notably with the gigantic fish set piece of her Monster Ball Tour, and Fellini’s influence is apparent here in the pushing of Catholic iconography to lurid excess. But there’s also the hand of another Italian Catholic in the mix: Like Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ, “Judas” centers the Passion narrative on the titular betrayer (played by Norman Reedus) and shifts the focus of the story away from violent spectacle toward sublimated sexual urgency.
Interspersed throughout the dance-heavy video—directed by Laurieann Gibson, Gaga’s longtime choreographer—is the story of Jesus (Rick Gonzalez) and his apostles, reconfigured as an outlaw motorcycle gang with Gaga as Mary Magdalene. Gaga leans heavily on the iconography: Jesus is crowned with glittering, jewel-encrusted thorns, and there are golden crosses strewn all over the place.
It’s music video as mystery play, taking advantage of the form’s penchant for slow motion and rapid cutting to present the story in a series of imagistic tableaux. The crowded paranoia of the Last Supper is obscured and replaced with the intimate washing of feet. The scene is an elemental ménage a trois with the clash of fire and water, of Judas and Jesus, with Gaga caught in the middle. It’s the only time the video halts the hammering beat of the track, intercutting the scene with a linked pair of images: Jesus marching toward his fatal destiny and Gaga sinking under the overwhelming force of a crashing wave.
Gaga Magdalene is also caught in the middle during the final confrontation, where she holds the power in the form of a golden gun, an image borrowed from Steven Klein and his work on “Alejandro,” but also recalling the church-bell machine guns of “Born This Way.” Gaga makes her choice by refusing to shoot Judas through the heart, instead using the lipstick-loaded gun to paint his mouth red. The erotic tension in the scene bubbles to the surface as Judas’s crimson-smeared lips mark Jesus for death, and Gaga plays the melodrama to the hilt with a silent, anguished cry.
As always, the whole production is visually stunning, and there’s an illicit energy that comes from putting Gaga-as-Magdalene center stage. The video ends with the death of neither Judas nor Jesus, but of Gaga as she’s stoned to death by the crowd. The action carries its own symbolic weight, but who knows what the results would have been had Gaga taken the same bold-yet-possibly-misguided step as Nas or the Beatles and refashioned herself as Gaga Christ? Here, as in Scorsese’s work, Gaga injects eroticism into the Christ story not to blaspheme, but to actually display a respect for the work, evoking the passion in all its forms.
For all its beauty, however, “Judas” is the work of a repertory, not a revolutionary. It takes familiar swatches from Gaga’s palette (the leather-and-chain aesthetic of “Telephone”; the plaintive, tear-stained camera stare of “Bad Romance”) and puts them all together for a competently executed work. It’s Born This Way’s “LoveGame”: an energetic clip that effectively translates the track into visual form, with a few powerful grace notes to recommend it, but it leaves open the possibility that the album’s true visual signature is still yet to come.