Set in Montreal, Canada, the film revolves around a time-worn Passion Play that for the past 40 years has been performed every year by a Roman Catholic Church. The production is staged for tourists and the faithful under the summer stars in St. Joseph’s imposing oratory on Mount Royal.
This particular summer, though, Father Leclerc, the worldly Roman Catholic priest in charge of the play, wants the text beefed up a bit. He turns to a group of actors and actresses, most of whom consider the Montreal tradition the lowest form of acting. There’s Constance, a single mother who works in a soup kitchen between acting jobs and has had an ongoing affair with Father Leclerc. There’s Martin, whose bread and butter comes from dubbing pornographic movies. There’s Rene, a cool intellectual who only agrees to act in the Passion Play if he can recite Hamlet’s soliloquy. He does.
Daniel is the struggling, young, unemployed actor chosen to play Jesus. He is also the play’s director and changes the traditional text in lots of ways that displease the church authorities, but please the crowds (ie: instead of using just the Sanctuary, he uses the entire geography of Mount Royal). After undertaking the part of Jesus, Daniel finds the lines between fact and fantasy increasingly blurred. For him, the dilemma is: how does he reconcile the fact that he is Jesus every night for two hours and then the next day face again the insecure life of an actor? As the story unfolds, Daniel adopts Jesus’ identity both off and on the stage. That is, Daniel’s life off stage soon begins to mirror the life of Christ.
For instance, when his friend Mireille is asked to strip for a beer commercial before ogling brewery executives, Daniel is enraged. He trashes the set, knocks over the TV camera and chases the crass ad agency people out with a whip — an obvious parallel to Jesus chasing the money changers from the temple. In another scene, the Mary Magdalene-actress washes Daniel’s back in the bathtub as the film’s way of re-telling the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with precious oil. In still another scene, Jesus’ descent into hell after his death on the cross is depicted by Daniel wandering around in Montreal’s subway, which is haunted by uncaring, oblivious people. Thus, the film dwells on artistic and symbolic portrayals of biblical accounts of Jesus’ humanity, but completely omits his divine nature.
Meanwhile, the new version of the Passion Play turns out to be the hit of the summer, with Daniel hailed by the Quebec media as “the greatest actor of his generation.” So electrifying and hypnotic is his performance that spectators watching the Passion Play fall on their knees and embrace Daniel as if he were really Jesus.
Indeed, the film’s intent is to leave the audience pondering if Daniel is an actor who played Jesus, or Jesus returned to Earth as an actor. Perhaps the movie’s most offensive and saddest scene occurs when doctors transplant various organs from Daniel’s body after he dies to other people in a pathetic attempt to use technology for a counterfeit, or substitute resurrection.
The director, Arcand, says his film has more to do with the plight of struggling young actors than his conception of the Scriptures. However, Arcand, who confessed he is not a church goer, shows forth his true colors by the following statement: “My mother was a nun before becoming my mother. For five or six years, she was a Carmelite before leaving for health reasons. And I’ve been an altar boy, and so on. So I know that religion is something I’ll never get rid of.” Arcand, however, seems unfamiliar with the kind of religion that God accepts as pure and faultless: “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). Furthermore, Arcand makes it quite clear that he has no personal knowledge of the risen Saviour, Jesus Christ, who would have helped him to live a new life free from the religious demons that possess him in this film and his depraved previous work THE DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE. It is revealing that the international community has bestowed endless awards on Arcand and his films in spite of the fact that his films are effete rather than engaging, tediously tendentious rather than captivating. In 1989, JESUS OF MONTREAL won the coveted Ecumenical Jury Award at the Cannes Film Festival, which DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE had won two years before. JESUS OF MONTREAL has been nominated for a record breaking sixteen Genie Awards in Canada and an Academy Award in the United States for best foreign film. These awards and nominations demonstrate the impoverished state of the film community. The ideological decision to be anti-religion and pro-humanist has overcome good taste. It is true that Arcand has a sardonic wit which castigates: lame brain critics (most likely those who admire this iconoclastic posturing); advertising production companies; glib lawyer promoters without a shred of conscience for the souls behind them; and, the institutional church. In fact, the film itself exposes Arcand’s insufferable pandering to the trendy left’s feeble attempts to comprehend and dismiss Jesus Christ, whose Truth continues to topple empires and change lives. Because Arcand and his colleagues are spiritually immature, they belittle the faith of those who have come to know Jesus as the Sovereign Lord of History. The inconsistencies and fallacies in the movie highlight Arcand’s paucity of spiritual insight and cry out for believers to pray for and witness to him so that he will be freed from his solipsistic captivity to human foibles.
JESUS OF MONTREAL and its creator, Arcand, does not deserve the outrage of the Church as much as it deserves our prayers for this immature intellect trapped in a skewed vision of reality. Unlike THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST which was a direct attack on the person of Christ, JESUS OF MONTREAL is primarily a commentary on those who would mythologize the Gospel and fail to understand the saving grace available in and through Jesus Christ. This film does not purport to be a portrait of Jesus, but rather a reflection on the meaning of Jesus for today. As such it has missed the mark, but not out of malice, rather out of confusion and ignorance.
JESUS OF MONTREAL is not a film that any right minded person would want to see, nor is it a film that Christians need to protest, rather it is movie that should call us to renewed evangelism so that the film making community can be delivered from these confused humanistic visions.
RECOMMENDED ACTION: Please pray for Denys Arcand and all those involved in this travesty. Please address your comments to:
Orion Pictures Corporation
711 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10019
Profanity; pornography and promiscuity; blasphemous attacks on Christ and the Church.