Jesus of Montreal is a film about a play about Jesus of Nazareth. Upon returning from extended travels in the east, an out-of-work Montreal theatre actor, Daniel Coulombe, is commissioned by a Catholic priest to modernize and rejuvenate the annual production of the Passion Play for Saint Joseph’s Oratory. The resulting production brings Daniel and his troupe of ragamuffin theatre actors into direct conflict with the institutional church and into the spotlight of the commercial media culture. The film is a parable of the life of Jesus, replete with metaphors, symbols, and intertextual allusions as the narratives of the Passion Play and the film itself intersect, overlap, and ultimately collide. The film reflects an existentialist exploration of the meaning of life, in the light of death. It is at once cynical and hopeful.
Jesus of Montreal was produced in Montreal, Quebec in 1989. It was written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand, as a follow-up to his widely-acclaimed film, The Decline of the American Empire (1986). Both films explored themes relating to the demise of traditional and spiritual culture in Quebec, and the rise of a consumer culture in which relationships serve only the end of instant self-gratification and in which human beings, especially artists, are commodities to be exploited and consumed as they are turned into apostles of the gospel of consumption.
Arcand had the idea for Jesus of Montreal as he was in production on Decline of the American Empire. An actor of his was playing Jesus in the Passion Play at night, while auditioning for commercials in the day. This struck Arcand as profoundly ironic, and led to the development of Jesus of Montreal.1 Commenting on the central theme of his film, Arcand said, “Consumerism may be the legacy of the eighties but there has got to be more to life than that. Jesus of Montreal is about a yearning for something else, a search for a sort of meaning.”2 The film reflects the effects of Reagonomics and of Hollywood upon Canadian culture, a point made explicit when a diabolical lawyer/agent tempts Daniel to compromise his artistic integrity in order to “possess the city,” and appeals to Ronald Reagan, Hollywood actor turned power-politicker, as an example of Daniel’s prospects.
Reflected here also is the tension between Canadian and U.S. culture in a postcolonial era, and Canada’s struggle to achieve an independent cultural identity, one that is, in Arcand’s view, life sustaining, rather than self-destructive.3 This is reflected symbolically in the name of the actor who portrays Jesus. “Daniel” is the name of a prophet who resisted cultural assimilation while Judah lived under the shadow of the Babylonian empire. For Arcand, Hollywood’s shadow blots out the sun in his native land. The commercialization of culture is a cancer eating away at the human spirit, one that will lead to the (inevitable?) destruction of society as we know it.
This is a theme that recurs throughout the film. In the opening scene, an actor symbolizing a “John the Baptist” type character performs a scene from Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov; as he hangs himself (a symbol, for Arcand, of the artist giving him or herself over to the “death” of commercialization), he cries, “Woe to those who commit suicide, to those who destroy themselves! No one is more miserable. By damning God and life, they damn themselves. . . . They curse the God who beckons them. They wish annihilation on Him and on all His creation.” Later, in a scene where one actor is recording a voice-over monologue for a philosophical science documentary, we are told that “the world began without man and will end the same way. When the last soul vanishes from Earth the universe will bear no trace of man’s passing.” Finally, in one of the final scenes, after Daniel has been fatally wounded in an accident on set, he stumbles out of the hospital and—the line between the actor and his character now utterly collapsed—begins to preach of the coming destruction of the city of Montreal, quoting from the Olivet Discourse. In this way, Arcand heralds the end of civilization, destroyed not by disaster or divine intervention, but by humanity itself, in its appetite for instant gratification—an insatiable “thirst after death and the void.”
Arcand represents the contrast between the free human spirit and the commercial culture through location and lighting. The domain of Daniel and friends is unadorned, simple architecture, always with natural light and flame, darker, earth tones, and shadows. The domain of the commercial world is bright whites, artificial lighting, and modern architecture, reflecting the emptiness of that world. Daniel dwells among the poor, whereas the diabolical commercial figures and media sycophants live in the lap of luxury.
The opening scene in the theatre portrays the theatre as a temple, dark, lit only by candles, colored with earth tones. One woman in the crowd stands out, wearing red. After witnessing the performance of the John the Baptist character, she says, “I want his head,” that is, for her ad campaign for “Wild Man” perfume. Later, this same theatre is the scene of an audition for a beer commercial, and this same woman is holding the auditions. But now the theatre (temple) is artificially lit, bright, and the stadium seats are a striking red, as if her diabolical color has infiltrated the artists’ sanctuary. It has become a “den of robbers,” where the ruling elites exploit the artists and their bodies for profit. Incensed at the exploitation of Mireille (a Mary Magdalene figure), Daniel “cleanses the temple,” destroying the production equipment and whipping the diabolical advertising executive with the chord from a camera monitor.
These themes are also framed with the use of music. The opening title sequence takes place in the Oratory, where from the balcony two professional female singers are performing the penultimate stanza from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, accompanied by a professional orchestra. A high camera-angle from the balcony reveals Daniel, and the voices of the singers descend upon him, as if to proclaim him the Son of God, “cherished by grace,” as the lyric says. That this is a portrayal of the confirmation of Jesus by God is clear from a number of clues, including the high-angle shot. First, it is here that the priest, referred to as “Father,” commissions Daniel to perform the Passion Play. Second, the priest makes mention of Daniel’s surname, “Coulombe,” which is very close to colombe, the French word for “dove.”
These same two singers are seen again in the audition scene at the theatre, where one of the women performs a song in a bikini. The lyrics speak of the sacredness of beer, and that beer is “worshiped” by the youth. The “many gods” of the commercial world parallel the pantheon of gods invoked by Pilate in the Passion Play. Finally, these same two singers are seen in the final scene of the film, performing now the ultimate stanza from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, but this time, not in the balcony of the Oratory atop of Mount Royal at the highest point of Montreal (with a beautiful stained-glass window behind them), but rather in the bowels of the city, in the subway, this time accompanied not by an orchestra but by a ragged ghettoblaster (with a giant advertisement for “Wild Man” perfume, and “John the Baptist’s” head, behind them). Here the lyrics speak of the “decay” of Jesus’ body. The movement of these two singers reflects the message of the film and the portrait of Jesus Arcand wishes to paint. They begin as paid professionals in the church, but the church is not adequate to provide for their needs (it is powerless), so they are forced to debase themselves, prostituting themselves to the commercial world and to its gods. Finally, they have found meaning in the witness of Daniel, who cleansed the temple, and so follow him to the city’s underbelly, begging for a meager remuneration, but free to express the authentic voice of the (human) Spirit, independent from the institutional church. More than anything else, this highlights Arcand’s bleak message—that there is no longer any place for the human spirit to breathe. The truth, or those who seek it, cannot survive in the world.
This search for truth, for something beyond what the commercial culture says (and the church in its hypocrisy concedes) is all there is—this is the conflict in the film, and it is crystallized in a scene symbolic of the Garden of Gethsemane. Daniel’s revision of the Passion Play has proved so controversial and subversive, that the church now demands Daniel revert to the original, antiquated script. The “Father” who commissioned Daniel to revise the play, has now “forsaken” him, demanding that Daniel’s play be abandoned. In this scene inside the Oratory, Daniel argues with the priest. The question of whether Daniel will proceed with his own Passion Play, or abandon it, parallels Jesus’ struggle in the garden to find the strength to “drink the cup” of suffering. The heart of the conflict for Daniel is whether to speak the hard truth, or to prostitute himself to the church’s easy answers, its quick fixes which bring no lasting satisfaction to the human soul. “There must be more than this,” Daniel exclaims.
In a twist from the Gospel narratives, however, Daniel’s struggle is not to align his weak will with the righteous will of his Father, but rather to resist the weak will of his Father and to choose what is authentic. The priest, it turns out, is like so many of the actors in Daniel’s generation—only a prostitute in a world that does not condone the pursuit of artistic truth. Earlier we learned that the priest is only acting as a priest; he is sleeping with Constance, one of Daniel’s theatrical companions. He never wanted to be a priest, but he was poor, and it gave him the opportunity to travel, see the world, and take in theatre. But now the priest has become trapped in his lie. What began as an arrangement of convenience for a nobler end has now subjected him to captivity to the institution. He cannot abandon the priesthood, because he would be an old man without the means to survive. Once again, the authentic human being cannot survive in this world. Daniel knows all this, and this is precisely the truth he refuses to believe. “There must be more.” Daniel chooses, in defiance of the church, to proceed with this final performance, and in so doing will learn that the priest’s bleak view of the world is the reality.
In the final performance, as Daniel is strapped to the cross, the police come on behalf of the church to shut down the play. The crowd, enamored with the performance, resists the police and a struggle ensues. In the process, Daniel’s cross is knocked over, crushing him beneath it. He does not die immediately, but this was his fatal blow.
The meaning of Daniel’s death is complex in Arcand’s narrative. At the most basic level, it confirms the truth Daniel simply had to resist—that the authentic human cannot survive in a world dominated by institutions, media, and consumption. Or as Martin, another of Daniel’s companions, put it, “Doing tragedy is dangerous.” But if it was Daniel’s insistence upon authenticity that drove him to his death, it was a complex combination of factors that dealt the blow. The authorities—ecclesiastical and civil—played a principle role, to be sure. As Daniel is researching before writing his version of the Passion Play, he watched a video of the original, in which it is said that “he was crushed by our pride” and that “his cross was made heavy with our sins.” The “pride” that crushed Daniel was the pride of the church, which could not afford to be undermined by the “historical truths” of Daniel’s portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth. But the church is not solely to blame. The “sins” that “made his cross heavy” were the sins of the populace. We’ll recall in the Gospels that it was not Pilate but the crowds who demanded that Jesus be crucified. In the film, if the audience had not resisted the authorities, Daniel would not have been knocked over and crushed by the cross. It was their obsession with the spectacle of death, spurred on by the media’s sensationalization of Daniel’s play, that sent them into a frenzy and ultimately “made his cross heavy.”
Yet in the film, there are two “crucifixion” scenes. The first we have just examined, but Daniel does not die until much later that night, in a Jewish hospital. Between these two crucifixion scenes, however, Daniel descends into the subway (the bowels of the earth, or hades) and preaches to the lost souls there, warning them of the coming destruction and exhorting them not to be taken captive by “false christs” and “many gods.” There, in the subway, Daniel collapses and is rushed to the hospital, where he finally dies. The second crucifixion scene is on the operating table, where his arms are stretched out in a cruciform position, as the doctors cut him open to remove his organs for transplant. And here is the hope in Arcand’s vision. Daniel’s eyes are given to a blind woman, and his heart to a middle-aged man. In his death, Daniel gives sight to the blind and new life. This may seem contrived and sentimental; however, there is a deeper message at work here. Daniel lives on in others, but only outside the structures of the church.
Of course, this minimal hope is overshadowed by the bleak vision which dominates Arcand’s conclusion, in a scene in which Daniel’s acting troupe, his companions, meet with the lawyer/agent who had tempted Daniel with fame and fortune. The lawyer proposes they form a commercial acting company in Daniel’s name. One of Daniel’s companions insists that if they do this it must remain true to his vision, to which the lawyer replies, “I’ve never said the avant-garde couldn’t turn a profit.” Out of all Daniel’s companions, only Mireille (the woman whom Daniel saved from prostituting herself to the advertisement industry) recoils at the idea. Thus Arcand’s vision is clear. The authentic human spirit cannot survive in this world; it will either be killed or co-opted by the principalities and powers of the airwaves.
Arcand’s vision of Jesus is heavily layered and revealed in various ways, sometimes through didactic exposition, often through metaphor, allegory and symbolism. “We’re beginning to understand who he really was,” says an antiquities scholar to Daniel, in a hushed tone, as if the church who funded his research might hear. But “who he really was” is, for Arcand, more than just the question of the historical order. Like the science documentary within the film, Arcand’s portrait of Jesus “leaves a lot of questions unanswered.” We learn who “Jesus really was” as Daniel comes more and more to overlap with the role he’s playing. In the play within the film, we are told in an expositional monologue that Jesus was the bastard son of a Roman soldier, that he grew up in Egypt (the cradle of Magic), and that, like all of us everywhere, Jesus believed that his own time was the most important in all of human history. We are tempted to think that this is what Arcand is telling us about Jesus, but the portrait of Daniel resists this easy conclusion. While we are told about Jesus’ origins, Daniel’s background is a mystery. We know less about his background than any other major character, only that he is a trained actor who took an extended hiatus in “the East.” We are given the childhood story of the hypocritical priest, the “God” figure in the film, but learn nothing about Daniel himself. This tells us that even the historical information we have on Jesus may not tell us “who he really was.”
For Arcand, Jesus was thoroughly a product of his times. He was a magician among magicians, and suffered a public death that was so common in the ancient world that the mode of death itself is meaningless. This is reinforced by the accidental nature of Daniel’s death. It is not how or why he died that is of ultimate importance, but rather what he left behind after he had gone.
But Jesus was exceptional in other ways. The Jesus of Daniel’s play exhorted the crowds not to worry about money, but to abide in peace within their communities. Jesus was, for Arcand, a revolutionary, but not a political revolutionary. He was anti-political. This vision is reinforced in Daniel’s own narrative. After destroying the production property in the theatre, and whipping the executive in the face, Daniel is taken to court. The judge orders Daniel to be examined by a psychiatrist. During her examination, she asks Daniel if he “hates advertising.” Daniel’s reply is instructive: “What got me mad was how they treated the actors, especially the actresses.” “Do you often fly into rages?” she asks. “Never. Rarely. But contempt really upsets me.” Arcand’s vision is not of a Jesus with a political agenda; Daniel has nothing against advertising per se. What Jesus and Daniel oppose is the exploitation of the human, the debasement of the soul. The “contempt” for human dignity is what enrages him. And this perhaps reveals a maturity in Arcand’s own presentation of Jesus. Jesus is not the mirror image of Arcand, who has a more thoroughgoing contempt for Hollywood and consumer culture. Jesus (Daniel) is perhaps somewhat more naïve, wishing only that he and his companions may be free to express themselves as they wish to express themselves, and be able to get by. But Arcand’s narrative exposes the naïveté in Daniel’s optimistic view of the world, while at the same time singing the praises of that naïveté. Daniel only realizes that he must preach against the world wholesale after it is already too late (in the subway, after he has been fatally wounded). Arcand’s Jesus is meek, simple, without a grand vision, and is therefore “cherished by grace,” and doomed to death, as the two final stanzas of Stabat Mater affirm.
While I would differ with Arcand’s portrait of an apolitical Jesus of history, his bleak vision of a world that in its lust to consume has set itself on an irreversible course of self-consumption, of a world which “began without man and will end the same way,” is a vision I have not despite my best efforts been able to disconfirm. But what is even more profoundly true than that uncomfortable truth is Arcand’s insistence that despite this, we simply must go on as if there were something more. And that is Arcand’s faith, and mine.
- Ron Burnett, “Denys Arcand – Jesus of Montreal: A Discussion.” Melbourne Sunday Herald (Melbourne, Australia, June 29, 1990). Republished on Burnett’s blog, Critical Approaches to Culture + Media. http://rburnett.ecuad.ca/denys-arcand-jesus-of-montreal/ [BACK]
- Ibid. [BACK]
- Richard C. Stern et al., Savior on the Silver Screen (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1999), 327-28. [BACK]