Apr 29 2011

Jesus of Montreal (1990)

Smart, engaging, funny, thoughtful, and doesn't collapse under its own weight. 4 out of 4.

There is a scene early on in Jesus of Montreal in which one of the characters performs a voiceover to a video depicting the Big Bang, and the inevitable end of the universe.  The presentation is both scientific and philosophical, and all in all, quite moving.  After he is done, the voice over artist turns to the sound technician and says, “Leaves a lot unanswered,” a question that not only addresses the cosmology at hand, but the nature of the human experience betwixt the beginning and the end.  In many ways, the scene sums up the film: curious, introspective, and reverent towards scientific explanations and religious experiences.

Religion has always been a controversial topic, and most films that challenge religion always stir up condemnation from the most faithful of the flock.  Ironically, the most protested films (Last Temptation of Christ, Dogma, Life of Brian) do not ridicule or demean faith, but dogma, interpretation and religious establishment.  Like those who came before and after him, writer and director Denys Arcand challenges the authority of the powers-that-be, but eschews smug cynicism for a receptiveness to faith in something more abstract than convention or doctrine would allow.

In an attempt to boost church attendance, Father Leclerc (Giles Pelletier) contacts respected underground actor Daniel (Lothaire Bluteau) to direct and star as Jesus in a modernized passion play at a Montreal basilica.  Daniel recruits four old actor friends to perform the play with him, and bases the play around historical accounts, theology and philosophy rather than staging a literal, and rather dry, reenactment straight from the Bible.

We get to see Daniel’s take on the Passion in its entirety about forty minutes into the film.  At one point in the play, it is stated that, “[Jesus’] miracles became more popular than his sermons,” which lies at the heart of the play, as well as the film.  The production denies the supernatural elements of Jesus’ life – including the virgin birth, Jesus’ miracles and the physical resurrection- and asserts that there is very little known about the actual life of Jesus; “disciples,” the actors say “embellish and lie.”  Instead, the play focuses on relaying the tenants of Jesus’ message: chief among them, “Seek your own salvation,” and “love one another.”

The play is a big hit with the public, who all seem genuinely moved by this new grasp on post-modern spirituality.  Church officials, on the other hand, are livid by what they deem as a blasphemous, atheistic rendering of the Passion, and having their authority questioned by a lowly troupe of actors does not help matters either.  Various members of the media take an interest in the performance as well, but are more motivated by the popularity the play generates and not what it has to say.

A modern, French-Canadian Jesus if I ever saw one

In a case of life imitating art, the film itself is something of a modern-day Passion play, with Daniel playing Christ on and off stage.  Daniel’s life also parallel’s Jesus’ life off stage: he butts heads with authority (the Church), resists temptations from nefarious forces (talent agents), and even drives out money collectors from a place of worship (in this case, advertising execs out of a theater).  Arcand skillfully retrofits the life of Jesus into a modern tale without being too obvious, and     Bluteau is perfect at exuding a calm, tranquil demeanor, and there is something very real and genuine in his actions and words, which is, perhaps, the most important element of the film; if Daniel is to be the real thing, he better make for a convincing Christ.

The film was, for obvious reasons, controversial in its day, and could still be considered so in this day of age.  Fundamentalist religious forces are still at work today, as are fundamentalist anti-theist movements, drawing battle lines, and clinging to warped concepts of deities (see: God and reason), leaving the rest of us to marvel (in confusion) in a polarized polemic between two groups who, frankly, resemble one another more than not.

As a student of history and a lapsed Catholic, Arcand has an intertwining view faith and reason, God and the universe, the natural and supernatural that is often glossed over by the media- crazy and rage make for the most entertaining stories- but has been around for centuries, if not even longer.  Arcand doubts the intentions of religious authority and remains skeptical over the supernatural, magic parts of the Bible, but there is an underlying respect, and even an acceptance, of some kind of humanistic spirituality.  There are no deux ex machinas or burning bushes in Jesus of Montreal, but the ideas, the sensations, the essence of what Daniel and his actors discover, and later go on to represent, are presented with a sense of wonder and transcendence, as if they have tapped into some kind of ground of being.

After the voiceover artist refers to the Big Bang presentation of being vague, the sound technician responds, “Yeah, on though it’s valid today, in five years it may change,” reflecting Arcand’s own gospel of hope, doubt, growth and faith.  Jesus of Montreal embodies these qualities, and does so by exploring religion in a very clever, unorthodox way that avoids being smug in its skepticism, or sanctimonious in its soul-searching.  On the one hand, it is a modern re-telling of Jesus, but in Montreal and in the Nineties, but on the other, it asks questions and makes revelations on religious thought that are profound and modern, all while providing a very smart, entertaining film that anyone can appreciate and respect.

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