And, now, a word on behalf of heresy.
Denys Arcand’s 1989 film Jesus of Montreal (Jésus de Montréal) draws on a variety of “contemporary research”—such as the Nag Hammadi manuscripts and the Jesus Seminar—in order to explore the mystery of Jesus. But, as Mark Twain quipped when asked to comment on the music of Wagner, “It’s not as bad as it sounds.” Indeed, I have always found something appealing in witnessing good filmmakers grapple with the mystery of Jesus in an honest, if not always doctrinally sound, manner.
Great art attempts to come to terms with great subjects. Therefore, I think it is best when considering films that take Jesus seriously that we take them seriously as art, as the endeavors of a human subject’s agon with the greatest of subjects, and not watch them with a catechetical scorecard as if we are umpires. Unfortunately, filmmakers who try to make apologetic art all too often end up with weak apologetics and crummy art. If we confront films such as Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, or Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal as honestly as their directors confront their subject, we might be surprised at how much such unorthodox examinations of Jesus have to say to us.
Jesus of Montreal is the story of a group of actors, led by their quiet and mysterious leader Daniel Coulombe (played by Lothaire Bluteau), who, at the pastor’s request, attempt to “breathe new life” into an annual Passion Play performed on the grounds of a Montreal Roman Catholic church. They breathe loads of new life into the story—suggesting Jesus was not born of a virgin, that the resurrection appearances might have been years or even decades after the Crucifixion, that Jesus was a “magician among magicians” and that the miracles were not all that miraculous.
This, of course, is the Jesus of the Jesus Seminar. Arcand also gets in some digs at the stuffy old, hypocritical Catholic Church, through the character of a buffoonish priest who only entered Holy Orders to avoid a life of poverty and as an avenue for seeing the world—a man whose moral failings are further “fleshed out” (pardon the pun) when we discover he has been having an affair with one of the company’s female players. Here Arcand follows a line of theatrical stereotype going back to at least Christopher Marlowe, and one which Hollywood and the popular media cling to, ironically, as a kind of sacred cow. The film also excoriates the modern temples of advertising and the media, and one of the film’s more compelling scenes shows Daniel, in the style of Jesus in Jerusalem, trashing the set and equipment on beer commercial after one of his players, the model Mireille (Catherine Wilkening), is treated like a piece of meat valued only for her body. But there’s more to the film than revealing hypocrisy.
What is important about this film is the way the story of Jesus, the one found in the canonical Gospels, bleeds through the scholarly controversies, the liberties of the text, and the hypocrisies and failings of the characters (and they all, with the exception of Daniel, have them). One way Arcand effects this is through drawing parallels between the Gospel Jesus and the Daniel Jesus. Besides cleansing the temple, Daniel’s “earthly ministry” (the play) begins when he is thirty. Daniel’s actors (disciples), prior to their involvement in the play, are deeply involved in the ways of the world—selling perfume as fashion models, doing voice-overs for pornographic films and scientific-materialist documentaries—but their encounter with Daniel and the story of Jesus transforms them.
And Daniel quite literally gives his heart for others and eyesight to the blind. But, by far, the most important element of the Gospel in the film comes through the power of the story itself on the audience—both those who watch the play in the film and those who watch it in the theater or on DVD. The first Resurrection scene (there are two), though not the central moment of the film, is extraordinarily powerful, as is the Sermon on the Mount—and the text is taken directly from the Gospel. Similarly, in a subway scene where a delusional Daniel, having just experienced an extreme brain injury, preaches to the startled if somewhat inattentive citizens in this “underworld” the words, in a very close paraphrase, of Matthew’s “little apocalypse”:
When you see the abomination of desolation, if you’re on the plain, flee to the mountains. If you’re on the balcony, don’t go inside for your things. If you’re on the road, don’t return home. Woe to those who are with child! Pray that your flight be not in winter. If anyone says to you, ‘Christ is here’ or ‘There…’ believe it not. Believe it not. False Christs, false prophets…the powers of heavens shall be shaken. Not the day, nor the hour…you know not when…the Judgment. Watch!
The story given to us by the Gospels is powerful, dangerous even. Jesus of Montreal reminds us that this powerful story will bleed through the flimsy fabric of interpretation and exegesis as well as the costumery of our intended or unintended dramatic personae. The film tells us that an authentic encounter with this story demands that we take account of our own lives and, indeed, that we change them, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
Spero columnist Michael Martin PhD teaches English at Marygrove College. Follow him on Twitter: @pater_familiar.