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Classic Film Night: Jesus of Montreal

‘Tell me the old, old story, of Jesus and His love.’ – #196, SDA Hymnal
For those who have grown up Christian, or even within a broader Western culture, the ‘Passion Week’ story – Jesus’ last week leading to his death and resurrection – is not only old, but likely very familiar. And here is a potential problem. We already know the details and the ending. We’ve heard it all before, probably many many times. And while familiarity may not breed contempt, it can easily breed indifference.
Here then is the movie’s opening, and its surface problem. Father LeClerc is on staff at a Montreal basilica and responsible for producing the annual Easter passion play, which has different scenes enacted either within the church, or on the grounds. But in recent years the play has been steadily losing audience. Same old, same old. It’s time for a make-over.
He finds and recruits a young, out-of-work local actor named Daniel to update the script, then cast and produce this year’s version. Daniel, who will play the role of Jesus, is not that familiar with the material and goes to the library to do research and write the script. He becomes affected by his investigation and begins to take his task very seriously. Too seriously. This will later get him into trouble. Daniel then recruits a small surrounding cast who will play his disciples. And we start to see what the film director is up to. Parallels between the actual story of Jesus and this Montreal play creation and staging begin to emerge. The actors are ‘called’ by Daniel from seamy contexts (one is doing porno voice-overs) into a new atmosphere. This story of Jesus becomes transformative for them. And, I would suggest, for us too. Here is the old, new story, of what Jesus and His love can do to fresh recipients. And we too have the opportunity to re-absorb this life-altering message by seeing it now in a ‘Montreal wineskin’.
The movie, amazingly, is operating on four levels. There is the original, actual story from the gospels. There is the passion play we watch the actors perform at the basilica. There is the parallel story taking place to the Montreal actors and their audience. Finally there is the re-absorption of the gospel message into our hearts. As we watch the ensemble rehearse and try to internalize the meaning and impact of Jesus’ words and actions, ostensibly to act it well, we see how it also transforms them. The script that Daniel comes up with is a radical new take on the old story. Radical for his Montreal audience and also radical for us viewing the movie. All of this breaks the familiar.
The play is a hit and great reviews result in the local media. Success has arrived for the troupe, and with it, temptations. An oily lawyer wants to discuss a book deal with Daniel and the parallel to Jesus’ temptation (Matt. 4: 8-9) is apparent – and intended. The scene takes place in an office 30-some floors above the city. All of Montreal can be at Daniel’s feet.
There are additional parallels that occur between the Palestine and Montreal stories. Throwing out the temple money-changers, walking on water, preaching to the ‘spirits in prison’ (1 Pet. 3: 18-19). And some of this gets to feel a bit forced. But the film finds its footing and deepest message when the Montreal story finally parallels Jesus’ death and resurrection. I leave the details for you to experience first by watching the film. But what happens here is remarkable.
There have been many film attempts to examine the life of Jesus. From the Hollywood big-budget King of Kings to the avant-garde Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew and even the Monte Python troupe’s Life of Brian. Always the story was a direct staging of the actual time period. With Jesus of Montreal the genius is to not do that.
For those who watched the movie, here are some questions to consider:

  1. Does familiarity with a story really subvert its power? Did the initial ignorance of the actors facilitate their acceptance and embodiment of the message?
  2. What can we learn from the sub-plot of Father LeClerc: a weak, conflicted, almost Pilate-like persona?
  3. How did you react to the role of the basilica security guard? Especially to his line (as the play is being shut down and he is dispersing the crowd) “Look, he dies on the cross and is resurrected. No big deal!”

Rich Hannon is a software engineer who lives in Salt Lake City. His reading interests focus on philosophy and medieval history.

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