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Jesus of Montreal (1989)

by on 2011/07/16


I’ve never practiced religion, unless Santa Claus counts as a god. I know mostly what I’ve heard via the mainstream. Schools were getting out of the faith game as I came of age, and any post-secondary courses were pure academics. So Christmas time and Life of Brian and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever just about have a lock on my Bible studies.

I doubt I’d ever seriously considered seeing Jesus of Montreal, but here we are with an enthused review today. At its time of release, I wasn’t in the habit of taking in subtitled films, and the apparent subject matter wouldn’t prompt an exception. In short, I hadn’t gotten around to it yet.

Which might be just as well. At the time, I’d have found it talky, confusing, obtuse, and overlong . . . and I’d have been oh so wrong on every count.

A Roman Catholic church is planning a staging of the Passion, an account of the final days and death of Christ. Father Leclerc (Gilles Pelletier) approaches an actor named Daniel (Lothaire Bluteau), and suggests a bit of updating. Daniel promptly slips into a kind of Seven Samurai — or rather Five Actors — mode. He recruits his fellow thespians from a variety of backgrounds: advertising, education, even pornography.

When they finally reveal their play, all kinds of excitement erupts. We learn about the Passion. We hear arguments for and against its historical ties. Elements of the players’ lives intersect with their actions onstage. The Church despises their over-updating. And (of course) it becomes a ballyhooed popular hit.

What I really appreciated was the story’s heart being in the so-called right place. On one hand, it’s unafraid to show foibles and hypocrisies, inconsistencies and contradictions, tragedies and injustices alike. Still, it does these things with a deep sense of humanity, of seeking out truth, of compassion, and the benefit of doubt. It asks questions not to subvert, but to clarify.

Everything seemed more objective and clear when I didn’t know the actors involved. Likely more familiar to a Quebecois audience, I was only vaguely acquainted with Bluteau, and Nikita’s Roy Dupuis was onscreen for mere moments. Without the distraction of preconceived notions, I was able to focus on acting. Without exception, I truly enjoyed everyone: journalists, hangers-on, pretentious opportunists, social climbers and, naturally, clergymen, satirical and sympathetic both.

The main five are especially endearing, individual mercenaries gradually growing closer as they go. Each is unique and interesting, while remaining believable. Their unique personas, their various interactions, their struggles — before, during, and after performing the Passion — all are a tribute to their talent.

Perhaps I have finally found an adult Breakfast Club.

Which may be little accident, for this is a true “Eighties” affair. Self-evident, perhaps, being made in ’89, but its touchstones are not parodies. No headbands or leg warmers, no “gag me”, “gnarly”, or “rad”, no neon pinks or pastel greens or blues. It felt like The Real Eighties: the clothes, the politics, the music, even the production itself. Its “datedness” is less a time capsule than a strong evocation of style.

Unless it’s all just very Montreal. Being a Torontonian, I don’t know.

I do know, however, the English and French coexistence worked fluidly well, and it sounds more appropriately used than in Bon Cop Bad Cop.

Nonetheless, I must point out The Problem and, admittedly, I noticed (just) one. In a scene near the end, a boom mic hangs into the frame. I can’t help hoping it’s there by intent, as another meta-level reference.

Perhaps I just love watching people putting on a show, but Jesus of Montreal won over this skeptic. It taught me something, entertained, and transcended itself in the process. Though I’m no one’s idea of religious, in this case “true believer” applies.

* * * * *

Rated R

120 minutes

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