You could call it a revisionist Passion play or an alternate, art-house version of "The Passion of The Christ," because the story of Jesus' suffering and sacrifice gets an edgy, contemporary face-lift by Quebec director Denys Arcand.
"Jesus of Montreal" was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 1989 Academy Awards and won both the Jury Prize at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. It's hip, it's sophisticated, and it's provocative in every sense of the word. And yes, some will find it irreverent.
The film begins with a priest from a Montreal shrine talking about their annual Passion play. After 35 years, the play needs an injection of new blood to shake it from its doldrums. He enlists a promising young actor-director named Daniel Coloumbe (Lothaire Bluteau), whose hair, stubble, and piercing-yet-calm eyes mark him as a natural to play Jesus.
From the minute that Coloumbe is recruited, Arcand (who also wrote the screenplay) begins to structure this modern-day recreation as a parallel to events described in the Bible, so that the idea of the Passion spills over into everyday life, with Coloumbe being a Christ-figure not only on-stage, but off as well. Just as Jesus found his disciples one or two at a time, and, once called, they followed their master to the next potential recruit, we see Coloumbe as he first goes to a woman who's working at a soup kitchen. "I've come for you," he says, a line that could have come out of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Once Constance (Johanne Marie Tremblay) is onboard, the two of them next walk onto a dubbing set where on-screen there's a porn video of a female twosome that expands into a threesome, then a two-couple scene. The disciple-to-be, Martin (Remy Girard), is in the booth, the lone male who's needing to ad lib because the other male failed to show for the session. As he shifts voices, literally breathless because of having to jump back and forth between two microphones, he utters pornspeak in a subtly but absurdly comic scene that's worthy of a Woody Allen film.
There is much sophisticated humor in this film, some of it broad, and some of it flat. Coloumbe is secretly approached by one of the academics who says he's representing other scholars connected to the shrine, wanting to influence the script the young actor has been given carte blanche to write. As he sits in the library doing further research, a librarian looks over his shoulder and asks, "Looking for Jesus?" Yes, he says. "It is He who will find you," she says. And when he goes to Constance's apartment and finds her with a lover, the man emerging sheepishly from the bedroom turns out to be a man of the cloth. "I'm not a very good priest," he says, with great understatement. Later, a near-shrugging Constance explains, "It gives him so much pleasure, and me so little pain."
One of the recruits, pulled off the stage from a triumphant performance, says he will come onboard only if he's allowed to recite Hamlet's soliloquy. And guess what? Coloumbe finds a way to work that Hamlet monologue into his new Passion play, so that Rene (Robert Lepage) also comes joins their troupe. For the fifth wheel on this revisionist ride, Coloumbe plucks a model from a perfume shoot who's fed up being nothing more than T&A. She will play Mary Magdalene, a woman Jesus rescued by casting out seven demons. In this film, that comes to mind, as well as the biblical story of Jesus casting the moneychangers out of the temple, when an enraged Coloumbe destroys equipment at an audition where Mireille (Catherine Wilkening) is asked to take off her clothes so financial backers can cop a peek.
During the group's rehearsal, we see just how radical their approach is: just the facts. That the one we call Jesus was known as Yeshu Ben Panthera, a Jewish prophet virtually ignored by historians of the day: Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny, and Flavius Josephus. Of course, Roman historians were just as inclined to devote space to Jesus and other "rebels" about as much as U.S. historians were to accurately report on the Native Americans who resisted westward expansion. Still, we're reminded that according to biblical scholars, what we know of Jesus is pieced together by his disciples a century later. "Disciples lie," one of them says. "They embellish." Those lines are spoken at the play itself, an interactive, moving play where the audience follows the players from station to station, the way a golf gallery follows the players. As the Sermon on the Mount is reenacted, Coloumbe/Jesus speaks to the crowd as if they were on the Mount, handing each a crust of bread and looking deeply into their eyes.
Structurally, this is a story-within-a-story so powerful that the it can't be contained with the performance. That, in itself, is a profound statement about Christ and Christianity, though the film is marked by irony as well, so that there is enough complexity for viewers to be either inspired or reviled. The filming, pacing, and soundtrack uphold the art-house feel of "Jesus of Montreal" throughout, so that just as Coloumbe was hired to update the Passion play to make it more relevant for the audience, Arcand updates it so that it becomes more relevant for filmgoers, and he gives the performance of the play itself quite a prominent role—so much so that we feel like one of the audience members following along at night outside the Basilica.
"Jesus of Montreal" is rated "R" for male nudity, female frontal nudity, and strong language.
"Jesus of Montreal" is presented in color at an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and the overall quality is decent. There are moments when patters—bricks on a wall, say—pulsate slightly, and when the picture is stretched to 4.3 expanded mode for widescreen televisions there's more edge distortion than usual. Exterior shots appear slightly hazy or smoky, a bit washed out. Surprisingly, the most difficult lighting conditions—the nighttime exterior performance of the Passion, including a step into a cavern—is among the most technically striking.
Audio options are the original French with English and Spanish (bright yellow) subtitles in either 5.1 Surround or 2.0 Stereo. I tried watching the film in 5.1 and simply couldn't. Other than the music, there's little in the way of sound effects or ambient noise. Mostly it's voices talking center-stage, and so most of the sound is channeled through the center speaker. When it was on 5.1 the voices sounded hollow, as if they were captured deep inside my television set, or trapped underneath it. The switch to 2.0 provided brighter, clearer, and more natural voices. For those who can't stand subtitles, there's also an English dubbed track. For me, that would be like watching a John Wayne movie and hearing someone else's voice. It changes the entire performance.
Aside from cast biographies and the original trailer, there are no extras.
"Jesus of Montreal" is a sophisticated, intelligent, and thought-provoking film about Jesus that manages to adroitly straddle two worlds—the realm of biographies that would attempt to help audiences understand more about the one we call the Christ, and the coffee-house atmosphere of experimental theater. That's no small feat. But this is a character-driven film which moves at the pace Jesus moved and taught. There's no rush to the ending, which feels just right to me, but may seem slow-paced to others.