On its release in 1989 Jesus of Montreal was hailed as a modern Canadian classic, commanding multiple award nominations, including one for best foreign film Oscar, and winning the Jury Prize at Cannes. An audacious film that works on a number of levels, it remains accessible because the plot is honed down to the most basic of cinematic premises – that of putting on a show. The show in question is commissioned by Father Leclerc, a Catholic priest in charge of the Montreal Passion Play. Leclerc feels that the script, which has remained unchanged for 35 years, needs updating to revive flagging attendance, which is where Daniel Coulombe, an actor in need of a purpose, steps in.
He recruits four other thespians to join the cast and dramatically alters the Passions. It’s a reworking that addresses the historical and documentary context of Christ’s crucifixion, emphasising the human nature of the story without doubting its spiritual purpose. Performed to great critical acclaim, the company nonetheless faces the wrath of the Catholic elite as Father Leclerc rescinds on his offer to modernise the performance and tries to re-establish the traditional play. Daniel, being the writer and director, naturally chose the role of Jesus, but finds that his life is beginning to parallel that of the character he is portraying.
Arcand’s film returns thematically to a number of areas – the character of the historical Jesus, Christ’s spiritual legacy, the church, politics, business, the media, acting and the nature of being Canadian. Generally pretty heavy stuff, and merged here on several levels as Daniel finds spirituality and meaning in the death of Jesus amidst the socio-political background of contemporary Canada, where the church clings onto its deceptions and image, and advertising and spin are the new religion. The church’s hypocrisy is perfectly mirrored in Father Leclerc – he’s a priest who’s in it for the job, toes the company line but still openly admits his predilection for prostitutes, just not to his parishioners. That prostitutes were befriended by Jesus gives us our first indication that Daniel is to become, in some sense, Christ-like. He gathers his disciples, trashes the false prophets (in the shape of exploitative media advertisers) in their temple and is even tempted by the devil incarnate – a sleazy media lawyer-cum-spin doctor.
At this point you’d be tempted to think that Jesus of Montreal is a hard going, worthy and pretentious film, but Arcand manages to offset any preaching with a strong vein of humour that runs throughout the proceedings. Much of this is derived from the characterisation, as Daniel persuades an oddball bunch of associates (one dubs porno films, another is a cheesy perfume and beer commercial model) to join his production.
As the film contrasts old and new, fact and fiction, media and religion, so the visual aspects alter too. Most of the day is shot in a naturalistic manner but the Passions are filmed with intense blues and reds that set them clearly apart. This linked with the highly visceral nature of the crucifixion is reminiscent of much of Peter Greenaway’s work from around the same time. The only thing that lets the film down is some pretty atrocious sub-Mark Knopfler guitar noodling that, along with the accepted changes in fashion, places the film firmly in its time. Jesus of Montreal is a rare thing – a film that manages to be witty, engaging and thought provoking. What starts as a simple "lets start a show" tale that, albeit with a religious twist, would not be out of place in a 1930’s musical becomes a journey of personal spiritual awakening and a critique of the church and media.