'Jesus of Montreal' is witty, perplexing and devilishly clever

October 04, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Many actors have played Jesus in productions high and low, but none of them have quite had the professional advantage of Daniel Coulombe, who has just been cast as the star and director/producer in St. Joseph's annual Passion Play. You see, Daniel is Jesus.

Coulombe, played by Lothaire Bluteau, is necessarily at the center of Denys Arcand's devastating, hilarious, perplexing "Jesus of Montreal," which opens today at the Charles and restores the tradition of evil mischief to the movie screen.

In the Gospel of St. Denys, Jesus is a sallow, vague young man, scruffy and passionate alternatingly, his background mysterious and contradictory, but his talent to move people extraordinary.

As Daniel, Bluteau gives an brilliant performance -- he manages to be low key and charismatic at once. But the movie's chief virtue -- beyond even its abundant wit, its occasional magic, and its harsh sarcasm -- is the subtlety of its cleverness. It's one of those infernally devilish games of a story, a perpetual notion machine in which archetype and actuality continually brush against each other in provocative ways.

Daniel is hired by a slick, show-bizzy priest to "modernize" the church's creaky Passion Play, the diocese's cash cow for tourists who're visiting the only French city in North America. Recruiting a cast of disciples -- a Mary, a Mary Magdalene, a Matthew, a Mark -- he quickly (and rather seamlessly) invents a new Passion Play with a radical edge.

Here's a Jesus grounded in history, anthropology, forensic medicine. He may be the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier, his crucifixion wasn't the elegant vertical suffering of a million marble statues, but hideously crabbed and bent; he appeared at a time when messiahs and magicians were a dime-a-dozen. This apostasy is of course astonishing and inflaming to the Church hierarchy; at the same time it's titillating to Montreal's avant-garde and show biz cultures, which turn the nightly happening into the with-it event of the season.

But what is happening is a kind of double reflection; as the original Christ was harassed and destroyed by the "establishment," so is the production; at the same time, Daniel's life is becoming a Passion Play.

In fact, the most pleasing aspect of the film is figuring out the parallels, which Arcand wisely never stuffs down your throat. But we see analogous, if rationally justified, episodes from the life of Christ such as his driving the moneylenders from the temple (a wonderful scene), his temptation by the devil in the wilderness, his two miracles in restoring life to Lazarus and sight to another, the founding of a church to live after him and develop in ways he could never imagine, and, of course, his crucifixion and resurrection.

The piece is basically subversive, however; it's far more so than Martin Scorsese's deeply respectful "Last Temptation of Christ." What it does is something akin to H. G. Wells' assertion that Christ was a minor Jewish outlaw who, against incredible odds, survived his crucifixion and wandered the world for three days after the event, upon which slender evidence the bogus apparatus of Christianity was erected. In Arcand's version, there's a rational explanation for everything. The faithful need not apply.

Not for the pious, "Jesus of Montreal" is vivid, truly wicked, and great fun.

'Jesus of Montreal'

Starring Lothaire Bluteau.

Directed by Denys Arcand.

Released by Orion Classics.

Rated R.


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