The film Jesus of Montreal was written and directed by Denys Arcand and produced by Roger Frappier. It stars Lothaire Bluteau as Daniel, Catherine Wilkening as Mireille, Johanne-Marie Tremblay as Constance, Remy Giraud as Martin and Robert Lepage as Rene. It was released in 1989 and runs for 120 minutes. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film - it's in French.
Daniel, a brooding and provocative actor, is hired by Father Leclerc (Gilles Pelletier) to star in, and direct, his Montreal Church's annual passion play. Father Leclerc's usual script is a little old and fusty, and Daniel is given permission to update it. Daniel hires local actors (dubbing foreign porn films, and recording commentary for documentaries) to join his company. Together the company re-research the story of Christ's death, and update (and practically rewrite) the script. Their final production is a triumph, loved by the audiences who flock to see the promenade performance, set in the grounds of the church, overlooking Montreal. However, the interpretaion of the life of Christ is far from orthodox - they refute the Virgin Birth for starters, and even attempt to give a name to Christ's earthly father - and the authorities try to stop the production mid-performance: the audience, however, demand that the play continues. A fight ensues around the cross on which Daniel is suspended and it falls to the ground concussing the actor. The play continues, although Daniel is taken to hospital. When he is released, he walks to one of Montreal's subway stations, and shouts at the people on the platform, waiting for a train. He is then taken back to hospital where he eventually dies.
And it's quite stunning.
The plot of the film, at least to begin with, seems predictable enough. Misfit actors get together and, after a few disagreements, manage to produce an excellent piece of art which challenges the authorities. We've seen the pattern this plot takes many times. Arcand takes it and links it to the life of Christ - a lowly man who eventually managed to challenge the powers around him and died for his conviction. Daniel becomes a Christ-like figure, up-turning tables and cameras at a fashion shoot, appearing in court for his actions, and journeying into hell (the subway) and 'harrowing' its occupants after he has 'died' on the cross. Mireille becomes the play's and the film's Mary Magdalene, rescued from poverty and debauchery by her love of Daniel and his belief in his work. Arcand, then, has recognised the archetypal pattern of the small man with conviction who can eventually succeed, present in both the Biblical story and more modern stories and films, and underscored it by tying past and present together. It's really a very moving piece of cinema.
Arcand, through the film, manages to find possible explanations behind some of the mysteries surrounding the life of Christ: clearly this is 'blasphemous' - this is, after all, why the authorities want to stop the play from going ahead. Yet the audience is still enthralled: they force the production to continue, so gripped are they. Beautifully, then, the film makes a quite breathtaking point. The miracles don't have to be true (it never says they're not, incidentally - just that they might not be... it's 'only' a film, after all). But even if they're not, the power of Christ's life and teaching remain. In the play, Christ brings a man back to life, and enables a blind woman to see again. Even if you don't believe that he did those things, you can still feel the strength and worth of a man who was, to quote Douglas Adams, 'nailed to a tree' for saying how great it would be for people to be nice to each other.
The play suggests that Jesus didn't come back to life after three days, or three weeks, or three months. But he did come back. The scene where Mary Magdalene is sure she's seen her Lord and runs, desperate, to find the others and tell them is possibly the most amazing moment in the cinema I have witnessed. The scene takes place in what looks like a disused hangar - Magdalene runs from one end to the other, practically beside herself with desperation and euphoria, stumbling and tripping as she goes. The music and photography do their stuff - raising goosepimples and neck hairs. You don't have to believe the impossible (you can if you like) says Arcand - but look at what went on: look and feel the emotion, desperation and belief of these people. Witness the power of this one man, and what he could do to people. That's the miracle, he says - and it's thoroughly believable... that we can remember him, and believe in him two thousand years later is testament to that.
One of the film's final moments, though, is the real kick. Daniel dies: the doctor asks if they can use his organs for transplants, and the rest of the cast agree. Daniel's heart helps someone with no life expectancy to become healthy again - his eyes give someone their sight back: the two miracles we see Christ perform in the play.
To say the film is emotionally affecting is to understate the case somewhat. I could say that 'this film will change your life' and it won't, purely because I've said it. So forget I have, and watch it anyway. The film plainly states that miracles are possible, now, today and that one man's creed of being nice to each other and telling the truth, simply and clearly, is as relevant as it always has been. That the film manages to move, and to support a faith, whilst exposing the hypocrisy of the exponents of it, is an amazing feat.
Perhaps the greatest tribute I can give Jesus of Montreal is this: everytime I watch it, I have forgotten that it's in French with English subtitles, the film is that clear and sharp.
(Technical details in the write-up come from The Virgin Film Guide.)