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Theological Moviegoings: Jesus of Montreal

jesusofmontreal

Jesus of Montreal begins with a suicide, or so it appears. The act is actually staged as the dramatic finale of a stage play, but we only realize this as the man appears to dangle from the end of the rope and the audience (previously unseen and unheard) erupts into applause. It is a humorous and disorienting moment for the film audience, and it immediately prepares them to look deeper as they continue watching; not everything may be what it seems at first.

It’s an apt place to begin a contemporary retelling of the story of Jesus, particularly one in which conventional, orthodox notions of who he was are occasionally challenged. In the film, a Catholic priest hires a celebrated local actor, Daniel Coulombe, to update and stage the Passion play his church has put on every summer for the past 40 years. The priest, Father Leclerc, expects Daniel to make the play more relevant to modern audiences, and perhaps draw in people who might not otherwise attend. Both men achieve what they set out for, but (of course) the results surprise them both.

Before production can seriously begin, Daniel has to assemble a troupe of “disciples” who are compatible with his vision for the play. However, the actors are recruited from unexpected places. For instance, one is busy dubbing a porn film when Daniel approaches him, though he heeds the (casting) call and leaves to follow Daniel in the middle of the recording session.

The most-developed of these followers is a beautiful young actress named Mireille, who Daniel finds filming an ad for an expensive perfume. She agrees to take on the role of Mary, despite the cruel insistence of her boyfriend that her acting talent is solely a factor of her sex appeal. She enjoys the change in self-perception that comes from stepping into a role that isn’t designed to display her like a piece of meat, and when trouble arises later she is the most insistent that the group forge ahead. She has begun to see herself in a way that she never has, and she can’t bear to think of returning to the way things were before.

Of course, the most dramatic events revolve around Daniel’s experiences. There is an early scene where Daniel is researching his character in the library. A stranger, a woman, approaches him and says, “You are looking for Jesus? He will find you.” As Daniel puts the play together, and then takes on the central role night after night, he begins to “live into his role.” What began as a job “becomes a vocation” (as Robert Johnston explains in Reel Spirituality).

He finds himself in trouble with authorities after his outrage over the demeaning treatment of Mireille at an audition for a beer commercial leads him to destroy thousands of dollars worth of equipment and chase the offending parties out of the auditorium. Meanwhile, the unexpected success of his passion play prompts a local advertising mogul to offer him the opportunity to “sell out” and have the entire city in the palm of his hand. Daniel himself seems a bit surprised by his response to these situations.

All of these extreme, life-changing events which the characters experience successfully mirror the lives of people in the Gospels. Again and again, contact with Christ not only proves to be life-changing, but is transformative in such a way that the person cannot imagine returning to the life they lived before. In Jesus of Montreal, the story of Jesus is invested with that power to change lives in startling and unlikely ways.

At the same time, just as Daniel’s Passion play reaches new audiences in new ways, the film audience’s experience of watching him take on the role of Christ in his own life can challenge perceptions and shed new light on the story as well. A traditional retelling of the biblical account of Jesus’s life can seem drab and familiar, even when rendered dramatically on film, but by changing the details, the filmmakers can bring the heart of the story into the spotlight once more.

Then, too, at such a temporal and cultural distance, it is easy to lose sight of just how revolutionary and counterintuitive Jesus and his message were to the people in and near 1st-century Jerusalem. When Daniel breaks up the beer commercial audition, for example, we are reminded of the divide between what is culturally acceptable and what is morally acceptable, and of how shocking it must have been when Jesus drove the merchants from the temple.

Incidentally, Jesus of Montreal, like the Jesus of the Gospels, has some things to say about organized religion (in this case the Catholic rather than the Jewish faith, naturally). In this case, the presence of the church is actually more of an absence. In the few scenes which show the interior of the sanctuary it is always empty. Despite the ornate beauty of the architecture and decorations, this church is spiritually dead. The revival is going on outside its walls.

This brings us to Father Leclerc, the most church’s most visible representative. He is furious with Daniel after he sees the play for the first time, but his reasons are somewhat surprising. He is not upset with Daniel’s modifications to the official Jesus narrative because he believes it is blasphemous or heretical, but because he knows his superiors will. Leclerc has long-since ceased to be a believer, but he continues to go through the motions as the head of his church because he is afraid of losing his job and having nothing left to fall back on. The actors encourage him to join them, promising to accept him and do what they can for him, but he is too afraid.

The conflict between Daniel and Leclerc reaches its peak when Leclerc orders the other actors to return to performing his original script and they refuse. Furious, he storms inside the church and Daniel follows him to have it out. The two argue about the play, and Leclerc accuses Daniel of interfering with his ministry to the congregation. He claims to offer a sanctuary and a listening ear to people who cannot afford to visit a psychiatrist. However, it is clear that the comfort he offers is as empty as his faith, and as the church itself.

The actors, after sharing a “last supper” of pizza, decide to put on one last performance for the public. In the midst of the crucifixion scene, an altercation between a group of guards and some members of the audience leads to an accident which fatally injures Daniel. However, he lives on in two important ways. First, his friends donate his organs to the hospital, and they are transplanted into several waiting patients (restoring sight for one woman, extending the life of a man in need of a new heart, etc.). Second, an organization is set up in his name, with the actors who worked with him agreeing to take charge of it and ensure that it adheres to his principles.

This is the weakest portion of the movie, as the circumstances surrounding Daniel’s death and legacy seem a bit forced for the sake of their Gospel parallels, and hence a bit unbelievable. However, the film as a whole sheds some powerful light on the question of what Jesus’ approach to society and culture might look like now, perhaps opening the viewer’s eyes to see the world a bit differently and understand some of the importance and uniqueness of Christ’s message in a new and relevant way.

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~ by Jared on September 8, 2009.

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