Jesus ofMontreal. a report on Sharman MacDonald’s Wild Flowers, shot in sunny Greenock. and Kobal’s incomparable collection of Hollywood snapshots.
INDEX: 21 LISTINGS: WEEK ONE 25 WEEK TWO 27
Another Fine Messiah
Kenny Mathicson discovers how an avowed atheist came to make a highly passionate film about Jesus— in Montreal.
Jesus ofivfontreal is one of those tantalising films which sound less than promising in synopsis. and exceed all expectations on screen. The standing ovation from the assembled hacks which followed its press screening at Cannes last year accurately reflected that sense of delighted surprise. Official approval quickly followed with the award ofone of the special jury prizes and the rather unlikely Ecumenical prize. The latter caught director Denys Arcand somewhat unprepared.
‘l was at my hotel playing tennis when my producer's office called to tell me.‘ he admitted. ‘I said very nice. and-went back to the game. only to be interrupted almost immediately by another call. You have to come down right away and accept this prize. my producer insisted — do you realise how many nuns and priests will now go and see this film in France!‘
That should not deter anyone of a less ecumenical cast from doing so. Set in Montreal. where Arcand lives. the film re-casts the most famous story in Western religious annals in a modern. ironic. and very witty framework. using a Passion Play as the springboard. The Church authorities hire a new group of actors to revitalise their tourist attraction in the grounds of the Church. but are horrified at the genuine. anti-clerical passion which they bring to it. After their dismissal. however. the actor playing Jesus is unable to simply set aside the role. but must undergo a contemporary version of these famous events.
‘I was educated in a Jesuit school. but more or less abandoned religion when I was fifteen. and never went back. Inevitably. though. it has remained with me. especially the very few words ofJesus which have come down to us. These words. and the ideas behind them. have great power even now. so much so that they still speak very directly to me. even though I am an atheist. I wanted the film to be a set of variations or improvisations on the themes thrown up by those ideasf
Ideas were very much the stock-in-trade of
Arcand‘s previous film. The Decline ofthe American Empire, a surprise success ‘everywhere except England‘ which enabled his producer to fund the even more controversial Jesus of Montreal. The new film is inherently more cinematic than its predecessor. but is no less directly based on wrestling with contemporary issues.
‘At the end of Decline, the characters are very empty- they have material success. but they don‘t know what to do with the rest of their lives. In that situation. you are going to ask yourself some questions. and obviously Jesus is likely to be one ofthem. Despite the fact that I trained as a historian. I would have no interest at all in making a historical film about Jesus — if] was going to do it. it had to be now. and it had to be about someone struggling with the idea ofJesus in our own time. and all the contradictions and revisions which that implies.
‘That is why I am interested in film-making. When I go to see a movie myself, what I want to hear is someone taking to me about themselves. telling me something which is going to help me in my own life when I leave the movie theatre. I can‘t offer any real solutions in my films. but what I try to do is explain the contradiltions which I am facing. and try to reach you in that way.‘
Arcand considers the casting of Lothaire Bluteau in the central role of the young actor who
takes on the persona ofJesus to be crucial to the film. to the point where he was unwilling to make it in Montreal if Bluteau had said no.
‘Lothaire was the only actor in Montreal I would have considered for the part. but he is perfect. There is something angelic about him — he has no real sexuality. which is a very unusual quality for an actor to possess. this lack of a clear sexual identity. almost an asexuality. He is the only man I know that I could show lying in a bath being soaped by a beautiful French actress, and yet have no sexual atmosphere in the scene, just friendship. or pure love. Lothaire is such an ascetic. he is tremendously self-denying. hardly eats. never drinks. but he is very highly regarded as an actor in Canada. and approaches his work very seriously.‘
Despite the harsh portrayal of the Catholic Church heirarchy in the film. Arcand reports that he has had no outraged complaints about the film from anyone. least of all from those most closely involved in the Church.
‘No. not a word. Surprising. isn‘t it‘.’ I expected that people might be offended by it. but — nothing. People seemed more upset by Decline than they are by this one.‘
I won‘t swear to it. but he almost sounded disappointed . . .
Jesus ofMontreal opens at Edinburgh Filmhouse on Sun 21.
The List 12 — 25 Januarv 199019