Jesus of Montreal

Jesus of Montreal was one of the most highly touted movies of this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, and it showed up in a plum slot: Saturday night of closing weekend. With all that going for it, Jesus looked like the front-runner for the best film prize in the whimsically named Golden Space Needle Awards, voted by the festival audience.

But hold that needle. The surprise winner turned out to be Pump Up the Volume, an enthusiastically received American teen movie. Jesus of Montreal had to settle for second place. I didn’t see Pump Up the Volume, but I couldn’t help liking the choice, if only because it denied a top prize to Jesus, a film I found pretentious and silly.

Jesus of Montreal comes from Quebec filmmaker Denys Arcand, and it has been one of the best-received Canadian films ever made. It is an allegory, both straight and humorous, about a troupe of actors who perform a Passion Play at a Montreal church, and the way the offstage activities of the actor playing Jesus mirror the events of the gospel according to St. Mark. Instead of throwing the money lenders out of the church, the actor (played by washed-out Lothaire Bluteau) chases some obnoxious producers out of a theater.

Like Arcand’s previous film, The Decline of the American Empire, this movie is an entertaining mess. Individual scenes are fun to watch, and the outdoor performance of the Passion Play, which aims at some of the realistic feeling of Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, is vivid.

The movie has a few remarkable moments, such as the policeman who interrupts a show by tapping the bloodied, crucified Jesus politely on the knee and informing him that he will have to shut down the performance. But the film is overly impressed by its own ambitiousness The religious allegory is obvious, and the best passages in the movie are its comic jibes at the nature of show business.

This is a movie with ideas rambling around in it, which is better than a movie with no ideas at all. But Arcand is not quite director enough to pull all of his ideas together. Despite the controversy surrounding it, Last Temptation is a more exalted and coherent look at Jesus for our times.

First published in The Herald, June 15, 1990

The film is well liked, as far as I know, and is certainly a classic of Canadian content. Maybe I’d have liked it more if it hadn’t been such a perfect SIFF film. But Pump Up the Volume is good, too. Arcand is still going strong, or he was when Fall of the American Empire was released in 2018. I also reviewed Decline back in the 80s, and I review a couple of his other titles here.

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