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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Canadian Film Review: Jesus of Montreal (1989)

* * * *

Director: Denys Arcand
Starring: Lothaire Bluteau

Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal is a thoughtful and well-constructed film which attempts to examine the relationship between people and religion, between ideas and practice. In it a passion play is staged which adheres perhaps too closely to Jesus’ teachings, starring an actor whose life begins to parallel that of the character he’s playing. It’s a film that takes religious teachings very seriously but casts a critical eye at the politics of organized religion.

Daniel (Lothaire Bluteau) is an actor much admired by other actors but whose career has never taken off due to the years that he’s spent abroad. A Montreal church, recognizing that the passion play that they stage every year has become stale, hires Daniel to direct and star in a retooled version. To do this, he gathers four other struggling actors to help him: Martin (Remy Girard) and Rene (Robert Lepage), actors he finds doing voice-over work, one for a porn film and the other for an educational film; Mireill (Catherine Wilkening), an actress more appreciated for her looks than her abilities, and Constance (Johanne-Marie Tremblay), a veteran of the passion play whom Daniel learns has been carrying on an affair with the Father Leclerc (Gilles Pelletier).

The play that the troupe puts on is not the play that the church is expecting, leading Father Leclerc to attempt to shut it down. It’s too literal, it’s too radical, and the response it provokes from the audience is too impassioned. There are members of the audience who speak to Daniel as if he really is Jesus and he himself begins to exude a different aura as events in his life begin to echo biblical stories about Jesus. One of the things that I really enjoyed about the movie is that it doesn’t hit you over the head with the parallels that it’s making. Arcand obviously has a firm handle on the subject, but he never lets the material become overbearing. There is an ease with which the film puts Daniel through the paces so that it doesn’t seem contrived or forced.

Existing on the periphery of the story, orbiting around Daniel like distant satellites, are characters whose purpose is neither to follow nor to impede him, but to distort his legacy. One is a member of the media who records and shares whatever facts or rumours about Daniel will make for the best story. The other is an attorney who takes the role of Satan to Daniel’s Jesus and sees a way to use Daniel’s memory to pervert his message and make a profit. These two characters, along with the church leaders who want to shut down the play, are like shadows steadily crowding in on Daniel, obscuring the light he is trying to impart.

Anchoring the film is the quiet central performance by Blutheau. He plays Daniel with a great deal of subtlety and grace, the full scope of which didn’t even really hit me until days after I’d watched the movie. The direction by Arcand is equally assured and engaging, though I do have one qualm: the music in the film dates it ridiculously. I mean, nothing says 1980s like a soulful electric guitar solo segue from one scene to another. Other than that, though, it’s a great film from top to bottom.

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