Jesus of Montreal (1989)

I do not know if Jesus of Montreal is the best film about the life of Jesus ever made, but it’s the best one I’ve ever seen. If the 1989 film by Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand is far superior, not only to Mel Gibson’s dreadful torture porn The Passion of the Christ, but also to Martin Scorsese’s well-intentioned but ultimately flawed The Last Temptation of the Christ, then it has a lot to do with Lothaire Bluteau’s performance. Bluteau not only portrays Jesus. He embodies him, physically and spiritually, but the brilliance of Jesus of Montreal goes beyond Lothaire Bluteau. His co-stars Johanne-Marie Tremblay and Catherine Wilkening are almost as good. The writing, the cinematography, the score, the startlingly original concept behind the screenplay, everything about this film comes together to make it not only a profound exploration of the essence of Christianity, but probably the best movie of the 1980s.

That I have to give a “spoiler warning” about a movie that directly parallels the life of Christ, probably the most well-known story in history, will give you an idea of the inventive originality of Denys Arcand’s screenplay. Jesus of Montreal is a film you can watch over and over again, but it’s worth seeing it for the first time without knowing the various ways that Arcand re-stages the key events of the Gospels in Montreal in the 1980s. Perhaps the movie’s best scene, where Lothaire Bluteau flips over the tables of the money changers, reinvents the incident as a declaration of war of the avant guard against the degrading aesthetic of corporatized, mass culture. It also dramatizes the often hinted at romantic feelings between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in a way that’s not overtly sexual. In fact it’s the opposite. Jesus flies into a rage because he loves Mary, because he sees the idea of romantic love being bought and sold on the open market. Arcand manages to say in a few short minutes exactly what Martin Scorsese tried, and failed, to say in the three hours of the ongoing relationship between Willem Dafoe and Barbara Hershey in The Last Temptation of Christ. Indeed, to watch Jesus of Montreal right after you watch The Last Temptation of Christ feels a bit like going from the kind of ponderous Biblical epic Hollywood used to stage in the 1950s right to the French New Wave. It’s like seeing Breathless for the first time.

Jesus of Montreal opens in the middle of a play within a movie, a staging of a scene from Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov. The audience is a caricature of the French Canadian bourgeois, cultural elite. The actor’s portrayal of Smerdyakov’s suicide is vivid and dramatic, as a staging of a suicide should be, but it also feels grotesque, overdone, kabuki-like. Arcand cranks up the sound so high, we almost feel relieved when the rope snaps his neck. After a woman in the audience remarks to her companion that she’d like to get the lead actor’s head for a TV commercial, a Biblically literate viewer will immediately recognize the allusion to Salome and John the Baptist, and probably notice how Arcand has set up the idea of the Roman occupation of Judea as the corporate mass culture that has colonized the minds of people in Quebec. “Here’s a better actor than I am,” the actor says, breaking off the conversation with the casting director to talk to Daniel Coulombe, Lothaire Bluteau, and reenacting the scene in the Gospels where John the Baptist passes the leadership of his movement onto Jesus.

Daniel Coulombe is a spare, intense 30-old-man with a subtle yet commanding presence. At one time a promising actor — he graduated first in his class as “the conservatory” — he disappeared for most of his 20s to travel in Asia. Now he has returned to Montreal to reestablish his career. He gets an opportunity to “start at the bottom” when and elderly priest named Father Leclerc, Gilles Pelletier, taps him to take over the passion play at the St. Joseph’s Oratory, an ethereal white cathedral modeled after The Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris and located on the commanding heights of Mont Royal, one of the highest places in the city of Montreal. While viewing videotapes of the old production of the passion play, Daniel notices Constance, a friend from acting school he immediately decides to bring over to the new one. Together they gather a gifted cast from the marginally employed bohemian community of the city, a man who does voice overs for pornographic films, another man who does narratives for a local planetarium, and, most important of all, Mireille, a young woman who works in advertising.

Mireille, the film’s Mary Magdalene played by Catherine Wilkening, is physically beautiful, but dead inside. Indeed, the first time we see her — she’s filming a perfume commercial — she quite literally looks like a zombie, sleepwalking through life as she hangs out of her skimpy clothes. Mireille, who’s in an abusive relationship with yet another casting director named Jerzy — he tells her she’d “give a paraplegic a hard on” but has contempt for her intelligence — surprisingly decides to sign on with Daniel Coulombe, to give up a potentially lucrative career for a part that pays almost nothing. Daniel, meanwhile, has rewritten the script of the passion play to put it more in line with the latest secular research on the life of the historical Jesus. Jesus is no longer the product of a virgin birth. He’s the illegitimate son of a single mother and a Roman soldier. There are long, educational passages about how the idea of “the Christ” was developed over time. Jesus, for example, was originally portrayed as a clean shaved youth. Only later, after Justinian became the emperor of the Byzantines, did artists begin to paint him with a beard, which was considered a sign of power in the Byzantine Empire. Daniel painstakingly studies the image of the cross, something the early Christians considered too horrifying to paint or discuss, only emerging as part of Christian iconography 500 years after the death of the historical Jesus.

The first production of Daniel Coulombe’s rewrite of the passion play is a smashing success. Coulombe, like a Catholic version of John Cassavetes, has allowed his actors to develop the script along with their performances. The results are startling. Mireille is transformed from an insecure young woman who thinks men see her as nothing but a sex object, to a genuine artist, confident in her abilities. Their little group has, in effect, become the mirror image of Jesus and the 12 apostles. They are not only dramatizing the Gospels. They are living the Gospels. Daniel’s portrayal of Jesus is so powerful that a woman in the audience, a black Haitian immigrant, tries to rush past the St. Joseph Oratory’s security staff to touch his cloak, precisely the way the non-Jewish woman in the Gospels broke through Jesus’ followers to touch his cloak, and be healed of her disease. The “Passion on the Mount” becomes the toast of Montreal. Even though the city’s bourgeois cultural establishment doesn’t fully understand what they have seen, they do understand that they have witnessed something of tremendous significance. It’s hard not to have the same impression. Arcand’s fictional passion play has a sombre, powerful beauty even for those of us who aren’t very religious. I was raised Christian, and I’ve studied the Bible and the history of Jesus, but I became thoroughly convinced as I was watching Jesus of Montreal that until Denys Arcand put the Gospels up on screen, I had never really understood what Christianity meant.

Unfortunately for Daniel Coulombe, Father Leclerc, who becomes the film’s Judas, understands all too well what he’s seen, that the real message of Christianity, at least before it was co-opted by the Roman Empire, was subversive, revolutionary. Daniel Coulombe, has not only made him insecure for his privileged position at a basilica in a major city — he’s terrified of ending up as the chaplain of a nursing home in Winnipeg — but that the established church is a fraud. The true spirit of the Christian religion is maintained, not by a hierarchy of priests, but by a poor artist and his bohemian followers. The Passion on the Mount has convinced Leclerc that he is a Pharisee and that Coulombe and his acting troupe are Jesus and the twelve apostles. Like Judas, therefore, he betrays the Christ, arranges for the Passion on the Mount to be shut down. For the film’s viewers, Leclerc’s betrayal is powerfully affecting. We want to see the Passion on the Mount again as badly as Daniel and his actors want to put it on again. For Daniel, Mireille, and Constance, the object isn’t to become rich and famous. Indeed, they don’t care if they completely destroy whatever careers they could have had in whatever mainstream culture Montreal has — which we’re told is a backwater compared to New York, Paris, or Los Angeles anyway — but to feel the emotions that putting on the passion play helps them experience. Money means nothing. Their little community, the mirror image of the small groups of social misfits who founded the Christian religion, means everything.

As Daniel and his actors fight the authorities at the St. Joseph’s Oratory to put on one more production of the Passion on the Mount, something quite magical happens. While doing the research for his screenplay, Daniel had met an otherworldly librarian, a woman with a far off look in her eyes and a passionate interest in his project, who had told him “you don’t come to Jesus. Jesus comes to you.” We begin to see that her prediction has come true. Daniel is no longer merely an actor. The spirit of Jesus himself seems to have entered his body, and he only half consciously begins to act out the journey Jesus took in the Gospels in secular, capitalist Montreal. Lothaire Bluteau is a small man, about 5’8” or 5’9” and all of 140 pounds, but he seems to embody an authority far beyond his size, or years. Indeed, when he chases the money changers out of the temple, attacks a group of cynical, and misogynistic advertising industry executives who have insulted Mireille we understand exactly why they run away. He’s not just an actor who has temporarily gone berserk. He’s the embodiment of a terrifying power, offended love transformed into indignation. When he’s arrested and hauled in front of a criminal court judge played by Arcand himself, we can’t but help see the historical Jesus testify before Pontius Pilate. When a smooth, corporate lawyer tries to tempt him with money and power in the mainstream media, we see Satan in the wilderness. After Daniel is quite literally martyred and resurrected in a way that Arcand manages to achieve with absolutely no appeal to the supernatural we get to see his followers, the early Christians, tempted, and corrupted, by the same smooth, corporate lawyer, no longer Satan, but now the Roman Empire.

Denys Arcand, however, ends the film with a glimpse of the kind of person he sees as the key to keeping the message of the early Christians alive, the marginal artist, the misfit who creates, not out of any desire for fame or money, but for spiritual enlightenment. The closing scene of Jesus of Montreal mirrors the opening scene. During the opening credits, we had seen two women, church musicians, singing the Stabat Mater inside the magnificent St. Joseph Oratory. The film closes with the same two women, still singing the Stabat Mater, only now in the street, continuing to practice their art outside of the institution that rejected, then finally destroyed Daniel Coulombe. The spirit of Christ has fallen from the Mount of St. Joseph’s only to be resurrected in the voices of two buskers in the Montreal subway. Denys Arcand, perhaps the greatest of all Christian filmmakers, has blessed and anointed the most marginal of all artists to carry on his legacy.

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