Made in 1989 by French Canadian director Denys Arcand (The Barbarian Invasions), Jesus of Montreal was much honored at the time of its release, receiving the jurors' prize at Cannes and an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. It's easy to see why. The premise - that a group of young, unconventional actors find themselves at odds with the established church when they investigate Christ's teachings - is a whopper, and Arcand pulls if off with some finesse; he never preaches and he refuses easy ironies. Jesus of Montreal delivers no facile moral lesson, but it never descends into simple church-bashing either. It is, rather, a little bit of both worlds; like The Barbarian Invasions, it's a social comedy, and it invites a little reflection, too.
What Jesus of Montreal is not is much fun, and there are a couple of reasons for that. The first is that, despite a few smart jokes, there's not much here to enjoy. It could be that the film suffers from that rare complaint: too much finesse from its director; it could be that Arcand may have fared better if he had given in to a few of those cheap church jokes after all. As it plays, Jesus of Montreal garners a few laughs at the expense of organized religion and the theater community (and I'm compelled to add that sparing the theater may require even more restraint than sparing the church). Material that another director might have mined for comedy, such as Father Leclerc's affair with one of the actresses, Arcand uses as the basis for politely pointed commentary instead.
When Mireille walks on water for the cologne commercial she's filming, Arcand stresses the irony humorlessly. He decries the system that exploits this woman for her sexuality, but he likes the scene's chic glint, too, and in fact much of Jesus of Montreal feels just as distanced as that ad. (The occasional electric guitar solo on the soundtrack doesn't help.) Where Jesus of Montreal closes this distance is largely in Bluteau's performance as Daniel (and hence as Jesus), and I found myself preferring the distance. Bluteau isn't bad (there are no bad performances in the film), but the scrappy actor he portrays is irritatingly wrong for the part; this Daniel doesn't feel messianic, he feels self-righteous, and there's a difference. As the movie moves along and Daniel is called upon more and more to proselytize (the film is structured around the Stations of the Cross), a smugness in the character undermines the comedy. It isn't funny when Daniel, still in his bloody Jesus costume, sincerely imparts nonsense to a crowd on a subway platform, and it isn't tragic, either. Bluteau has taken his Daniel too seriously, Daniel has taken his Jesus too seriously, and Arcand's resolute detachment brings the whole conception down.
Here's one you don't hear every day: it could be that Jesus of Montreal is too intelligent a film. You be the judge.
Editor's Note: I disagree. Long regarded as one of the pinnacles of Canadian filmmaking, Jesus of Montreal is Denys Arcand's tragic story of a group of unknown actors who are commissioned to produce a play based on the life and death of Jesus. Its star soon finds his life mirroring that of his character, and by the film's end, it's hard to tell where one person ends and the other begins. The story is simple, the movie is powerful. The performances are gripping and the film is often suprisingly funny. Highly recommended.
Aka Jésus de Montréal.
Run time: 120 mins
In Theaters: Friday 25th May 1990
Distributed by: Orion Classics
Production compaines: Centre National de la Cinématographie, Téléfilm Canada
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 79%
Fresh: 11 Rotten: 3
IMDB: 7.5 / 10
Director: Denys Arcand
Screenwriter: Denys Arcand
Starring: Lothaire Bluteau as Daniel Coulombe, Catherine Wilkening as Mireille, Johanne-Marie Tremblay as Constance, Rémy Girard as Martin, Robert Lepage as René, Gilles Pelletier as Fr. Leclerc, Yves Jacques as Richard Cardinal