Jesus of Montreal Review
1989’s Jesus of Montreal was Denys Arcand’s return to international filmmaking following the success of The Decline of the American Empire three years earlier. That effort was a middle class multi-hander, a comic-dramatic blend which seemed to suggest Arcand as a Canadian Henry Jaglom. Here, however, we have a much weightier subject and a film that is perhaps less accessible. As the title suggests, Jesus of Montreal focuses on religion, in this case recreating the Passion Play in a modern age.
Ostensibly it’s about a version of the play as put on by an experimental theatre troupe. Hired by the Catholic Church to perform on sacred ground and “freshen up” an outdated version, their director and leading actor Lothaire Bluteau reworks the story so that Mary becomes an unwed mother and Jesus the son of a Roman soldier. And so whilst this wows the crowds and the critics, Bluteau and co also meet objections from their backers. As such we have one explanation for the title Jesus of Montreal and indeed Arcand pays due respect to this version by showing it in its entirety at the film’s midway point.
However, the larger narrative of Jesus of Montreal also justifies such a title as Bluteau’s own experiences begin to match those of the figure he is portraying. Here we find him as a rebel amidst the religious establishment or being tempted by fame above the city in a skyscraper or giving sermons to passers by on the underground. Heavy-handed on paper perhaps, but this isn’t the case onscreen. Certainly, Arcand doesn’t keep his reference points hidden, yet at the same time they’re also never overplayed or overripe. In many ways it helps (inadvertently perhaps?) that Jesus of Montreal comes loaded with a highly discernible eighties gloss; the wailing electric guitar score, fashions and the rest somehow create a situation whereby the symbolism never sits too easily or is able to come across as too pat.
Furthermore, there’s another layer to intentionally complicate matters. Running alongside this dual narrative we also find a lighter, more playful dimension, which occasionally errs towards the satirical and irreverent. Admittedly, it’s all centred around the acting world or show business if you will – Arcand targets commercial shoots, auditions, television in general – yet it also serves as a kind of tonal intrusion and again makes the religious content sit less easily. Indeed, it certainly invites questions as to Arcand’s intent and this can only be a good thing. His own ambivalence and questioning nature cross through, thereby resulting in a rich and intriguing work which invites multiple interpretations, but never easy answers.
Jesus of Montreal was last issued in the UK in 2003, on that occasion, like this one, by Arrow. So why the new release and what exactly is different? Firstly, this particular disc represents a vast improvement in every way. It may not genuinely deserve the “special edition” tag which it is gaining, but in terms of picture, sound and extras there is much to be impressed by. In contrast to the previous pan-and-scan NTSC-to-PAL disc which burnt-in subtitles, here we find a superb print, an anamorphic transfer (at a ratio of 1.78:1) and optional English subs. There are minor difficulties inasmuch as edge enhancement crops up on occasion, whilst the slight graininess to certain scenes prompts some artefacting, but otherwise this is a highly watchable effort. As for the soundtrack, here we find the original French stereo, as said with optional English subs. Again, it’s an impressive piece of work, remaining crisp and clear throughout and presenting no discernible problems.
The extras meanwhile amount to a single addition, but also a very good one. A 30-minute interview with Arcand himself (in English), the piece proves to be a wide ranging affair covering everything from the director’s first experiences in the Canadian film industry (as a maker of schools’ documentaries) to the recent Oscar win for The Barbarian Invasions. In-between he also discusses Jesus of Montreal in great length and reveals how its inspiration came whilst filming a beers commercial!
Last updated: 19/04/2018 06:11:35