Arcand's film has not made the same tidal wave. But the talented French- Canadian director, best known for The Decline of the American Empire (1986), makes many of the same arguments.
Jesus of Montreal is built around a Passion play, yet its arguments - both droll and dramatic - rest on an acknowledgment of human passions and foibles. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh is always weak, and this ancient conflict creates all manner of hypocrisy that is artfully skewered in Jesus of Montreal.
This examination is made possible by a simple and ingenious device that finds Daniel Coulombe, a talented but spasmodically employed Montreal actor, engaged to update and revitalize a stiff, traditional Passion play at a Catholic shrine. The priest who hires him is the worldly lover of one of the actresses. ("I'm not a very good priest" is his explanation.)
Daniel (Lothaire Bluteau) diligently researches the latest biblical scholarship on Jesus and comes up with a Passion play that presents Him compassionately and, he feels, relevantly. Since the piece also suggests that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier, the authorities who commissioned Daniel are outraged, and the play is a hit.
In clumsier hands, Jesus of Montreal could have settled for obvious broadside, but Arcand has a subtle touch. His sympathy and humanity extend to the priest, a gray-haired figure positioned in very gray terrain. The pastor (Gilles Pelletier) regrets his hypocrisy, but feels he is too old to change and contends that even a bad pastor can give comfort to the desperate and afflicted.
More tellingly, Arcand explores how the actors are transformed in different ways by performing a story that one of them observes is great, if not especially original.
Arcand ends on a note of hope and resurrection that isn't quite earned by the skepticism that has gone before. It hinges on a miracle of modern medicine that makes an apt connection with the healing attributed to Jesus in the Bible. The transplant works, and so does Arcand's daring shift of location and perspective.
JESUS OF MONTREAL * * *
Produced by Roger Frappier and Pierre Gendron; directed and written by Denys Arcand; photography by Guy Dufaux; music by Yves Laferriere; distributed by Orion Clasics.
Running time: 1 hour, 59 mins.
Daniel Coulombe - Lothaire Bluteau
Mireille - Catherine Wilkening
Constance - Johanne-Marie Tremblay
Martin - Remy Girard
Rene - Robert LePage
Parent's guide: R (adult themes)
Showing at: Ritz at the Bourse