Québécois filmmaker Denys Arcand tackled artistic and provocative storytelling long before our beloved prodigy actor/director, Xavier Dolan, was even born. I stumbled into TIFF’s screening of one of Arcand’s most notable and iconoclastic films, Jésus de Montréal, completely on a whim this summer and completely fell in love with it.
The satire, Jésus de Montréal, shocked audiences in 1989 (following the success of Arcand’s previous film, Le déclin de l’empire américain, in 1986), and it still maintains its effect today. The film follows the story of budding actor, Daniel Coulombe (Lothaire Bluteau), as he and a group of fellow actors (a Québécois star-studded cast including Robert Lepage and Rémy Girard) create a rather unorthodox reimagining of the yearly Passion Play on the hillside of Mont-Royal in Montreal. While facing much opposition from the Catholic church and the police force, the troop of actors holds true to their art. Through this journey, the fates of the characters in the film begin to resemble Biblical figures.
In an audience talk-back after the show, Arcand noted the different reactions he had received from film-goers throughout the years, reporting to have received both hate mail and stories of born-again Christians simultaneously. In my opinion, however, Arcand did a fantastic job of tastefully telling this story in a thought-provoking manner. As a disclaimer, I am not a particularly religious person. That being said, I did not find this film in any way overwhelmingly religious or at all offensive. This film, in fact, reminded me of what films are meant to be: art. They are supposed to make you think, feel, act, and even criticize the world on-screen and around you. We live in a society where the film industry cares more about creating cash crop at the box office (some high budget action-thriller with a recycled plotline) than it does about creating anything with actual substance.
Despite its title, I would argue that Jésus de Montréal is not a religious film at all, although the plotline presents many parallels to the Bible. Through the allegory of Jesus, Arcand documents the struggles of an artist — or, specifically, an actor. The film showcases a constant duality of art and money, presenting them as two very separate entities. Daniel’s troop of actors leave paying — yet unfulfilling — jobs to be part of Daniel’s Passion Play, a virtually unpaid engagement. Throughout the film, the actors are tempted to leave the production by finding other paid jobs (such as commercial acting) and by being offered corporate business offers. While these are obvious allegories for the Temptation of Christ, they also highlight a prevalent issue in our society: corporate greed and capitalism. Evil is manifested as those who seek to capitalize on everything in life, including an artist’s basic needs to live and create.
Now, who’s going to step up to the plate to satirize the struggles of being a student?