Saturday, 28 November 2009

Jesus de Montreal, Denys Arcand, Canada 1989

Jesus de Montreal is one of my all-time favourite films, and one that I watch periodically, discovering new things every time I see it.

Arcand’s film begins with a priest, Frere Leclerc, hiring a young, aspiring, actor, Daniel, in order to breath new life into the Passion play. Audiences have been dwindling over the past years, and Frere Leclerc realises that his only chance to win them back, not to mention recruiting new ones, is by bringing the play up to date, by modernising it. Thus, Daniel sets out to hire a group of actors and it is only slowly that it dawns on us that Daniel embodies Christ himself, out to enlist his disciples. The parallels to Jesus’ own life are evident, yet they are cleverly conceived. For instance, as Maria Magdalene Daniel hires Mireille, who, not unlike the biblical lady she is to personify, is the kept woman of an advertising executive. The advertising and media world looms large in the film, and so it should, for in this day and age, its following outnumbers that of any religion by far, in fact, it has replaced it. On a similar note, Constance, who is hired for another part - presumably that of Maria - is first shown giving out soup to the poor in a shelter for the homeless and her own home is open to anybody who needs a place to sleep and a bite to eat. Daniel eventually makes it his home, and so does Mireille, hence it becomes the place where the actors live, meet and rehearse, and as such stands in for a sort of latter-day nativity which would give birth to their work - their - revised, modernised - play. This, of course, is a fitting metaphor to the Passion play itself, which, although, it certainly has happened in one way or another almost 2000 years ago, is essentially a production of man: it was written down, brought to paper, many years after the fact, and consequently it is our right, some may say, our duty, to question its facts.

To call Arcand’s film blasphemous would be short-sighted and outright silly. However, conservative Catholics may take issue with the fact that Arcand ingenuously knocks Jesus off his pedestal, demystifies him, and by doing so turns him into an human being - quite literally - reminding us that he was first and foremost an ordinary person-on-a-mission and that only many years after his death his name became synonymous with God. Thus, Arcand highlights a simple, basic, fact which nevertheless is often overlooked, especially by staunch followers of Christianity. And yet, Arcand never questions or doubts Jesus’ existence, nor that of God himself. He just invites us to think, to reflect, on our relationship with religion, and, for that matter, with God, who, more often than not, has become a commodity - and as such is on an equal footing with the world of media and advertising.

Canadian actor Lothaire Bluteau who shines in the leading role of Jesus

It becomes clear that Arcand’s problem is not so much with God, or Jesus, themselves, as with what they’re made into, namely by the Catholic Church, with its unwillingness to accept the fact that times have moved on, new ideas must be taken on board, and that change must be embraced if it doesn’t want to lose its following. The film addresses this issue by having Frere Leclerc happily having an affair with a woman, Constance, who has become part of Daniel’s stock of actors, yet when Constance suggests that Frere Leclerc might quit priesthood to move in with her, he declines. Needless to say, the question that automatically arises is why shouldn’t he have both? But aware of the consequences - to be defrocked, and thus stripped of his privileged status the Church, so dear to him - keep him from taking the plunge. It comes as no surprise then, that once Daniel and his troupe have modernised the Passion it is promptly rejected by Frere Leclerc and his superiors, regardless of the fact that the play is hugely successful with the public. Quite literally, the word - or gospel, as it were - of Jesus alias Daniel and his disciples is not understood. And although Arcand most probably intended to chiefly decry the notoriously conservative attitude of Quebec‘s Catholic Church, I would argue that outside Quebec things aren’t that different. Perversely, Leclerc himself appears to like the play, aware what Daniel intended to achieve, but, rather cynically and hypocritically, he dismisses it, suspecting that rocking the boat would mean disappointing and consequently losing, a part of his most ardent followers. Like with advertising, in religion people want to be deceived. As a result, the reactions to the play by some of the people - notably those of whom we know are working in the media and advertising world - are as arbitrary as if they were watching a commercial: no discrimination, no reflection or distinction - tears flow freely and whenever it’s convenient for in our fast-paced, media-obsessed environment, emotions only run skin-deep.

It is to Arcand’s credit, that in spite of all the solemnity of the subject-matter, Jesus de Montreal remains light as a feather throughout, in fact, is even hilariously funny at times. Perhaps, it is because rather than in spite, of this lightness, not to mention the sheer absence of any wagging finger, that by the end of film, we find ourselves deeply moved and overwhelmed by the evocative metaphors Arcand finds to put Jesus, his life and what he stood for, in a modern-day context, subtly pointing out that there is as little room for him now as there was then. Jesus de Montreal aptly ends on an unobtrusive, hauntingly beautiful note with two buskers chanting Bach while kneeling on the floor of a Montreal subway-station like Madonnas in mourning, above them a billboard of an actor, seen earlier in the film and who, like a Judas of sorts, betrays his profession by selling out to do commercials. And slowly, the camera tilts to the left into the big, dark nothingness of the subway-tunnel.

Quite simply - a gem, and most highly recommended!

Jesus de Montreal is available on DVD.